Not One Less Not One LessDirected by Zhang Yimou …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Not One
Less
Directed by Zhang Yimou

It’s
an old story now, but worth recalling. In April of 1994 the government of China
began a crackdown on its filmmakers that effectively put the brakes on what,
for more than a half-decade, had been a cinematic outpouring of extraordinary
force and vitality. Certainly, the regime had tightened the screws before–its
botched attempt to have the 1990 Oscar nomination for Zhang Yimou’s Ju
Dou
withdrawn was one very public failure–and would continue to refine
its restrictions later. But in retrospect the 1994 crackdown, which was barely
noted in the Western press, looks more than ever like the crucial turnaround,
the moment when China’s post-Mao film renaissance went from being a rising
tide to a retreating one.


Prior to ’94, mainland
filmmakers mounted searching examinations of the country’s recent past,
especially the long-undiscussed horrors of the Cultural Revolution. They also
probed, directly or through pointed allegorizing, contemporary China’s
failures and problems such as the ongoing inequities between rich and poor,
city and countryside and men and women. After ’94, the depiction of recent
and current troubles gave way to colorful, but allegorically anemic, dramas
set in some safely distant corner of the past. Yet the main difference was one
not so much of subject or setting, but of attitude. Post-crackdown, filmmakers
seemed chastened by the limits implicitly and explicitly imposed on them, and
by the reality of their fragile dependence. There was far less eagerness to
challenge, to provoke, to stick one’s head above the herd.


All of this bears on the
case of Zhang Yimou, the most prominent (along with Chen Kaige) of the mainland
filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s. To the extent that our celebrity-centric
press focuses at all on Zhang’s artistic fortunes, most of the attention
goes to his break with Gong Li, the actress who starred in all of his films
through 1995′s Shanghai Triad. Yet it seems to me that Zhang’s
troubles began with, not after, that film, and primarily reflected the changed
conditions for filmmakers after 1994.


Though it vaguely suggested
a symbolic engagement with Deng-era prosperity (“to get rich is good”),
Shanghai Triad was a bloated costumer that removed Zhang from both pointed,
adventurous cultural commentary and the peasant/lower-class milieus that had
been his most congenial fictional territory. His next film, Keep Cool
(1997), marked a foray into urban comedy that was interesting but largely unsuccessful;
it was the first film of his career to be rejected by the New York Film Festival
and U.S. distributors.


Not One Less, Zhang’s
latest, won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival while failing
even to gain a slot in New York’s festival, a disparity that says something
about how, depending on one’s viewpoint, the film can look like a glass
half-empty or all-but-full. Measured against the astringency and daring of the
director’s earlier films, this sweet-tempered and relatively upbeat tale
about a 13-year-old substitute teacher in rural China does undeniably look like
Zhang Lite, or a Zhang Yimou Afterschool Special. But judged in the context
of China’s post-’94 filmmaking circumstances, it’s a sharp demonstration
of the director’s fundamental skills and, for now, necessary recourse to
subtleties.


Perhaps the easiest way
to draw a bead on the film’s virtues is to imagine the differences between
how it must’ve looked on paper, to the bureaucrats who approved its production,
and how it comes across onscreen. Based on actual events, the movie tells of
young Wei Minzhi, who, though but a child herself, is put in charge of a class
of younger kids for a month. The first half of the tale deals with her arduous
and sometimes comic efforts to take charge of the situation; the second half
chronicles her journey into the city to retrieve a troublesome student (she’s
been enjoined that her class contain “not one less” kid at month’s
end) who’s gone there looking for work in order to help his struggling
family.


In the abstract, this looks
like a simple story of personal growth, caring and commendable perseverance.
And so it is. But the way Zhang films it also lets in lots of elements that
aren’t quite so cheery and flattering. These begin in the basic peasant
earthiness that’s been a hallmark of his work since the first. The man
who instructs Minzhi tells her that, to conserve chalk, the letters she writes
on the blackboard should be the size of “a donkey’s turd.” Such
semiwhimsical, eminently Zhangesque details aside, the film scores serious points
in the harsh drabness of the world it depicts.


This is what almost surely
wouldn’t come across in meetings with film officials. The rural outpost
Zhang describes is a world left brutally behind by China’s current prosperity,
and he brings out all its arid ugliness, human deprivation and cruel historic
ironies (the kids still sing happy paeans to Chairman Mao, that fallen master
of collective mania and mass slaughter). The city seen later in the film isn’t
a lot better. For poor people at least, it’s simply a baffling reminder
of the social advances that have been denied them.


Though Not One Less
marks an obvious attempt to recapture many of the qualities of The Story
of Qui Ju
(1992), arguably Zhang’s best film to date, the newer movie
clearly can’t risk its predecessor’s bold antiauthoritarianism and
caustic ambiguities. It has a good-bureaucrat character who’s surely a
sop to the real-life variety Zhang must deal with. And, like a Hollywood movie
of the 40s, it’s saddled with an obligatory upbeat ending, this one typical
of the kind of smiley-face, happy-peasant Chinese films that a colleague of
mine derides as “UNESCO filmmaking.”


Still, this is the film
of one of the era’s greatest directors, who regrettably happens to be working
in straitened political circumstances. Whatever the movie’s surface simplicities,
the meanings that Zhang achieves between the lines, as it were, are impressive,
and even more apparent on repeat viewings of the film. Animated by his sensitive
visual style and the wonderful performances he gets from a bunch of rural kids,
Not One Less finally suggests the bit of irreducible peasant wisdom that’s
at the core of several Zhang films. When times are tough, it whispers, sometimes
the best one can do is to persevere, and survive.



Claire Dolan

Directed by Lodge
Kerrigan

We’ve
seen New York’s vaulting visual surfaces used countless times under the
opening credits of movies, but in Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan
the stark faces of skyscrapers are photographed in a way that perfectly establishes
the film’s tone. As captured by Teodoro Maniaci’s camera, these steel
and glass monoliths are palpably paradoxical: beautiful but forbidding, luminous
yet cold, full of human ingenuity yet somehow inhuman in their sleek perfection.



Speaking the language of
photographed architecture, the opening of Claire Dolan communicates volumes
not just about the world where the film is set and the filmmaker’s attitude
toward it, but also about the movie’s esthetic–its lineage, appeal
and potential pitfalls. Like those buildings, Kerrigan’s film is full of
modernism’s cerebral minimalism and abstraction. The story of a prostitute
struggling to break free of her pimp and start a new life, it has the kind of
exacting austerity associated with Bresson, and with Godard’s depictions
of prostitutes in Vivra sa Vie and Sauve qui Peut (la Vie). Which
is not to say that the film is at all derivative, or falsely European in flavor,
but rather that it conjures ambitions that depend greatly on formal expressiveness,
and thus demand an unusual degree of precise formal modulation and control.


Dramatically as well as
visually, the film is stripped to bare, largely nonemotive essentials. The first
time we see Claire (Katrin Cartlidge, the British actress known for Mike Leigh’s
Naked) she’s in a phone booth making calls to prospective johns,
speaking in flat tones that make “I want you inside me” sound as purely
functional as “may I have your Social Security number.” With her pulled-back
brown hair and sharp profile, she’s not an overly attractive woman and,
curiously, she doesn’t seem interested in any embellishments that might
brighten the package for clients. Sex for her as well as for the men she services,
the film makes clear in a few very nonprurient scenes, is strictly business.
The bodily exchanges occur in a mood as stark and spare as the hotel rooms that
contain them.


All these hard, clean lines
describe the walls of a cage, which is Claire’s life. Though she and her
pimp (Colm Meaney) have shed their accents, they evidently both immigrated from
Britain and have known each other for years. She owes him a lot of money and
therefore he keeps her on a tight rein, exercising his control even through
shamelessly faux-solicitous inquiries about her mother, whose death in a nursing
home soon after the film begins is apparently the event that propels Claire
to bolt for New Jersey and change her name, hoping–vainly, of course–for
a taste of freedom.


From one angle, Claire
Dolan
is Taxi Driver reconfigured. Here, the prostitute is the central
character and the cabbie who hopes to rescue her (Vincent D’Onofrio) plugs
into her fantasies, rather than plugging her into his. But instead of Scorsese’s
witty, quasi-religious baroque, Kerrigan’s brand of modernism is all poised
detachment and philosophical sangfroid–an approach that walks a fine line
between restraint and overdetermination.


Kerrigan made one of Amerindiedom’s
most auspicious debuts of the past decade with his low-budget drama Clean,
Shaven
(1994), a film whose hauntingly ragged, disjunctive style draws the
viewer inexorably into the unraveling consciousness of its schizophrenic protagonist
(brilliantly played by Peter Greene). Backed by French producer Marin Karmitz,
the renowned patron of Kiarostami and Kieslowski, Claire Dolan opened
in competition at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and met with reactions far more
mixed than greeted its widely admired predecessor.


That divided response in
many ways typifies the divisions that currently characterize the discussion
of art films (a term that’s getting stale, I know) both domestic and foreign.
On one hand, Kerrigan’s defenders assert that his film offers far more
intelligence and genuine artistic daring than most of what surrounds it, which
can hardly be denied: In a just world Kerrigan would get the budgets and attention
now awarded to pretentious frauds like P.T. Anderson. Meanwhile, at the other
extreme, detractors who maintain that the film simply doesn’t work often
don’t bother to think about the way it means to work; yet they,
too, have a point.


As an admirer of Kerrigan’s
ambitions, I’ve pondered why Claire Dolan doesn’t fully make
good on its promise, and I keep returning to two points. One is that the film
misses the perceptual excitement and originality of Clean, Shaven, which
effectively demands that the viewer complete its psychological, emotional and
stylistic “pictures.” That film was a groundbreaker precisely because
of the way its fragmented surface involves the spectator’s imagination.
Claire Dolan asks for intelligent engagement, but not this kind imaginative
participation. Its surface isn’t fragmented, it’s abstracted.


In fact, the cultural indistinctness
of the main characters makes it feel doubly abstracted, which I think
is the crucial problem. Again, this is primarily a matter of formal articulation,
with the people considered as part of the overall design. Given the stylistic
abstraction surrounding them, Claire and her pimp especially, it seems to me,
should be very specific, very much parts of a recognizable (if largely
unseen) here-and-now. Yet they aren’t. She’s a supposedly high-class
hooker who doesn’t go in for makeup, sweet talk or fantasy attire. He’s
a suit who might as well work on Wall Street. Neither of them has an accent
(and being played thusly by Brits make them seem ever more like refugees from
Erewhon).


The point is that this kind
of vagueness–which includes the casting–added to the style’s
abstraction, sets the drama at one remove too many. It may well work in concept.
But up onscreen, as flesh and blood characters, these figures are easily three
degrees too conceptual. You believe them less as actual people than as “idea
of a prostitute,” “idea of a pimp” and so on.


The fact that an artist
makes a commendably difficult leap doesn’t necessarily mean that he arrives
faultlessly at his destination. It sometimes means that his daring deserves
applause and his future moves should be watched closely. Kerrigan certainly
deserves to be kept in the sights of anyone who cares about the forward edge
of American narrative filmmaking.


Claire Dolan, which
was recently picked up for distribution by New Yorker Films, is the initial
offering in a new Lincoln Center series, “American Independent Visions,”
which gives a one-week run each quarter to an independent film (distributorless
or not) that hasn’t previously reached New York screens. Claire Dolan
will play Feb. 25 through March at the Walter Reade Theater.


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