Not One Less

"Zhang Yimou’s tale of a plucky adolescent substitute teacher in a rural Chinese village, cast entirely with nonactors and shot on location, is an astute example of censorship politics. Taking on touchy issues with a veneer of can-do spirit and happy-ending fantasy, his film is at once rousing and eye-opening. Wei Minzhi is a stubborn young woman who takes a substitute teaching job in a tiny provincial town because they can’t afford anyone else. When one troublemaking boy heads off to the city to help support his starving family, it’s not a sense of responsibility that drives her rescue mission, it’s money: She won’t receive her bonus if any students are missing. Her efforts to raise money for the city trip pulls the class together in a sense of purpose, and even drives the lessons, but when she finally reaches the city she’s shocked to discover an urban jungle of lost and runaway kids." (text taken from Amazon)
Year Released
Running Time
106 min
Sony Pictures
ISBN Number
Average: 4.7 (6 votes)


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A Heartwarming Film

Field of Interest/Specialty: String Orchestra
Posted On: 01/02/2018

Higgins--Grades 4-12--String Orchestra
This film, “Not One Less,” is appropriate for grade levels 5-12. The most likely grades I would show this movie to are 6th, 9th, and 12th graders. These particular students in those grades are going through new and tough transitions in life. The main character journey is very relatable to the new student who is starting out in a brand new school filled with new faces and harder classes. It begins with a young female who is appointed to be a substitute in a poor school and teaches the students life valuable lessons and is on a mission to bring back one of her students who has run to the city. Because my subject is specializes in music, this movie would not be very appropriate for my music students as the school year progresses. But I would definitely show this movie to my students on the first couple days of school or even before holiday breaks because this film brings up many important themes and life lessons. To make sure students are paying attention and understanding the video is to create a write up with questions about the movie or having students compare and contrast their lifestyles vs. the Chinese students’ lifestyles in that movie, or having them list the themes that are brought up. Not to mention, this would be perfect for a math class because the teacher uses math equations and has her students solve it just by using a chalk and a board. This movie can also be inspiring for high school students who may be interested in being in a teacher someday and might teach them valuable lessons the young female learns during her journey of teaching. One example is she figures out how to discipline the students during and after school, by asking them questions and being patient with them. This film is certainly predictable but also gives the viewer reality of life and just how different cultures are.

The Most Valuable Lesson

Field of Interest/Specialty: English/German
Posted On: 11/29/2016

At first glance, she’s a hapless substitute teacher who is only in it for money. As the days go and her students rebel, we see that she seems to be in way over her head; we wonder what else could go wrong. She has been tasked with keeping all of her poor, rural students in school, and things aren’t looking good for her--one student has been selected to attend a prestigious sports academy and another has left for the city to find a job. But the more time we spend with Wei Minzhi, the more we see that she is just a nervous, young girl away from her home, out of her element, desperate for the money she was promised, and concerned for the well-being of the students in her care. Through her struggles in her rural school and the bustling city, teacher Wei learns the most valuable lesson for any teacher--before students want to know what you can teach them, they want to know that you care.
Not One Less, from director Zhang Yimou, is a charming tale of perseverance; the film engages students, while exposing them to issues in education and poverty in China. This movie can stand alone as a film study, and it can also fit nicely into a full unit in a language arts class or a social studies class. Whether before or after watching the movie, lessons about education in China, rural vs. urban life in China, and poverty can bring the movie to life in a real-world context.

Not One Less

Field of Interest/Specialty: Biology Secondary Education
Posted On: 12/10/2014

Not One Less is a powerful film that can be used in classrooms of any level. The film depicts thirteen-year-old Wei in her new position as a substitute teacher in a rural school. Even though she was only a few years older than the students, Wei was placed in charge of teaching around thirty first through fourth grade students. Wei's school faces crippling debt, and the school can barely afford to buy the chalk necessary to write the lessons on the board. Teacher Gao, the previous teacher at the school, had not received a paycheck for several months prior to his leave. Teachers may find Teacher Gao's character inspiring for his commitment to the students at the beginning of the film.
Students can learn quite a lot from this film. The Chinese school system is often stereotyped as being very competitive and advanced, but the rural setting of Not One Less provides an alternative perspective of the educational system. In addition, students in your classroom will not only be able to see the responsibilities of their peers in China, but the film can also help them recognize how fortunate they are in the Unitied States education system. Many students likely take for granted items like chalk and pens, and the film may change the way they think about school. The film is G-rated and age appropriate, and can easily be used as a supplement for a lesson on China.

Film Review: Not One Less

Field of Interest/Specialty: World History
Posted On: 05/23/2013

Christy Knable
Grade 6 World History
Sewickley Academy
Not One Less (1999)
Zhang Yimou
Not One Less, directed by Zhang Yimou, is a powerful rendering of rural education in China. Released in 1999 and running 106 minutes in length, it is a shorter film that would be ideal in a classroom of any age group. This film tells the story of a thirteen year old girl who takes up a post as a substitute teacher for a month at a primary school in rural China. She is tasked with keeping every student in school, only obtaining compensation if there is “not one less” student when the full time teacher returns to his post. In addition to being an interesting piece for any teacher to watch (observing pedagogical styles of this young, adamant, and spirited girl are thought provoking in and of itself) this story is germane for any age group.
As a middle school teacher, I could see using this film as an inquiry into educational equity in China. Many of my students are aware of the challenging, competitive and trying conditions of highly selective urban high schools in China. These academies and schools of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangzhou, and other large cities boast prestigious curriculum, competitive athletics, and high performance at the university level after graduation. As this is often a stereotype of schools in China, this film could be used to show alternative settings for educational experiences of the Chinese. Wei Minzhi’s visit to the city in search of her lost student demonstrates the immense differences between urban and rural backgrounds. She struggles to find the resources to bring her dilemma to the public’s awareness. Eventually the goodwill of a broadcaster fosters a reunion of sorts. I could see this as a space to discuss equity with younger students and/or high school students.
Another way I could see this film being used in the classroom setting would be as an opportunity to raise questions about community. Wei Minzhi leaves her home to take up the substitute teaching job in the first place to provide income for her family. After some time, she begins to feel devotion to this new community she has become a part of. She works to keep the children at school so they can learn. The film has no clear cut ending informing the viewer of whether or not she remains a part of this community, but it does pose the question of what is the responsibility of an individual to be a part of a community. Should students learn in order to give back to their village or town? Or is it best to leave and take a chance in the big city? Not One Less asks these questions through prose that could be of critical use with students.

Not One Less

Field of Interest/Specialty: Global Studies
Posted On: 06/02/2011

Not One Less a movie directed by Zhang Yimou
Reviewed by Kathy Lenski/ Avonworth High School: Global Studies-Chinese Program
This G-rated video is appropriate for middle and high school students. Perhaps elementary students who may have a lesson about China would also appreciate this engaging portrayal of a rural Chinese elementary school. This film released in 1999 lasts 106 minutes, so almost three days of class time would be needed.
Before showing this video to classes, students should have some information on education in China in order to appreciate the differences between rural and city school systems. Course offerings, class size, support materials, a typical school day, layout of the school, and the length of the school year could be suggestions for research.
Our first glimpse of the rural village occurs as a man and a young girl approach it on foot on an unpaved road. Walking through expanses of dry, stony fields, they view uniformly-colored, rustic buildings and stone houses peeking from behind a stone wall. The first sign of life is a lone donkey that crosses their path in this earthen-tone setting. Their entrance into the uninviting, dusty school yard is unheralded even though some well-scrubbed youngsters are playing there. Windows line one side of the school, and several posts appear to stabilize the exterior. When the introduction is made, the reader learns that the gentleman is the mayor, and the girl is the substitute teacher, Wei Minzhi. A third person washing his hair in what appears to be a farm building outside is the teacher who must depart to care for his ill mother. During his absence for a month, this thirteen-year old with a primary school education must conduct class and ensure that all students remain in class for the duration of her stay. The established teacher is unconvinced that the young girl is the best candidate, but the mayor assures him that she is the only one willing to take this assignment. With her limited skills, Wei’s sample lesson does not impress the departing teacher. According to the agreement, her salary of fifty yuan depends on maintaining the current enrollment. After stating some procedural considerations about when to end the class, what assignments to practice, and how to prepare nightly sleeping arrangements, the teacher departs.
As the events unfold, the viewer begins to see the difficulties of rural education: the village is unable to pay the regular, dedicated teacher who has not been paid in six months; the limited supplies of chalk and books pose a challenge for the teacher; families with their children are moving to the city; teachers avoid the more remote areas of China; and the school serves several grade levels in one room.
Many episodes show Wei’s determination and her care and concern for her students. Perhaps her will was forged by a fierce allegiance and duty to the system that she praises in her song. Maintaining discipline during class is a challenge for the teacher who shows her determination when a struggle between students destroys the rationed chalk prized by the regular teacher. During one episode, Wei argues with the trainers and struggles to resist the men who want to remove a talented female athlete from her class in order to give the runner the opportunity to receive special training to compete for the country. Running determinedly after the vehicle to plead for the return of this athlete, the young teacher returns despondently to her class without the student. However, after one of her students, Zhang Huike, escapes to the city, Wei and her students use math to solve a problem involving the purchase of a bus ticket. Taking a field trip by foot to work at the brick factory as a part of the fund-raising episode enables her to insist on fair pay for her students. Later that day while returning to school, a touching episode occurs in the store with the purchase and sharing of the exotic refreshments. Many moments in the film show the relationship that the teacher develops with her students. Wei even follows the suggestion of her students to try to ride the bus for free after learning that the wrong information for the ticket price was used in the problem-solving inquiry in math class.
Finally, leaving her students unsupervised, Wei arrives in the city to search for her one missing student. The rather naïve teacher faces the challenges of the city with its inhospitable welcome and sad surprises. Persistence and determination rule the day for the teacher as she tries various ways to locate her lost sheep who roams the streets while receiving food from charitable shopkeepers. With the aid of technology, the message to locate Zhang is transmitted with unexpected results. Returning to her village, Wei brings treasures to her students and enjoys their love and respect. The ending is just as charming as the entire movie for students of any age.

Review by Denise Southard (November 2008)

Field of Interest/Specialty: Japanese art history
Posted On: 04/30/2009

The movie, Not One Less, was a wonderful movie about a thirteen-year old girl and her experiences as a substitute teacher in rural China. I showed this movie to my seventh grade students who thoroughly enjoyed the film. These particular students were in a basic social studies class and the movie helped to clarify what life in rural China is actually like. The subtitles, which I was concerned about at first, only helped the students to focus on the movie; they were so engrossed in the film that they did not have the opportunity to become bored and lose interest.
I plan to show this movie to both my seventh grade classes this year when we study China. The movie is perfectly age appropriate and gives the students the opportunity to see what life is like for their peers in another country. It will hopefully give them the opportunity to realize how precious education is and what opportunities we take for granted here in the United States.
The movie focuses on a thirteen year old girl, Wei Minzhi, who is forced to take a substitute teaching position because her family needs the money. The teacher, Teacher Gao, must leave for a family emergency and is worried that in his absence, he will lose students. The teacher leaves thirty pieces of chalk (one for each day) and offers a bonus to Wei if she can keep all the students at the school. It is incomprehensible to Americans that a thirteen year old child would be responsible for a class of younger students. The desperation of the situation that forces the teacher to leave and have a child in charge depicts the dire straits these people are faced with every day.
The students are supposed to be learning basic math and reading. Wei Minzhi is not really interested in teaching the students as much as she is interested in the money. At one point, she locks the students in the classroom while she outside the room in an attempt to figure out how to teach them.
One of her students is taken by the government because of her ability to run. At first, Wei is furious with the mayor for allowing the government to take the child until it is explained that the loss of this student is a good loss. She will be trained for the Olympic team and therefore, this does not count as a negative loss for the little school.
The story then focuses on one student in particular, Zhang Huike. Zhang is the bane of Wei’s existence with his sense of humor and impish personality. One day, Zhang does not come to school and Wei learns that he has gone off to the big city to find a job. His family is desperate for the income. Wei is determined not to lose this student and forfeit her bonus so she goes off in search of him. She searches in the big city and learns the reward of persistence and determination.
Wei has the students in her class raise enough money to help her earn money for the trip so that she can go find Zhang. Wei realizes that she cannot earn the money on her own so she teaches the students the value of teamwork. She also learns about this concept for herself. Prior to this event, Wei was only concerned about her own problems. Once she has enough money, she hitchhikes to the city and begins searching for Zhang. She eventually fins him, lost and begging for food. She rescues him and they return to their village.
The movie is an excellent movie to show to middle school students. In addition to the scenes of rural poverty stricken villages in China, there are many lessons in the film. Survival, determination, and bravery are only a few of the themes recurring throughout the movie. It is also a good film to illustrate the many differences between rural China and rural America.