By James Sweeney | March 10, 2000

Wei Minzhi is a thirteen year old girl who has applied for and been given the job of substitute teacher in a small rural village. Unfortunately when she presents herself to the departing teacher, the only qualification she can come up with is her singing ability and when tested on this, she can’t remember the words to a single song. Nonetheless, she is left alone with the rambunctious children and promised a nice bonus if she can keep the entire transient population of her class together. When the resident class “royal pain in the a*s” leaves to find work in the big city, Wei, determined not to lose her bonus, decides to raise money and go after him, and in a dizzying display of resolve and hidden competence, begins to work with her class on solving the problem.
The name Zhang Yimou may ring a bell as the reigning king of the Chinese epic costume drama. In the past, most of his films have starred Zhang’s real-life love interest, actress Gong Li. I think it was the trailer for Raise The Red Lantern that proclaimed her “the most beautiful woman in the world”. Whatever. I wouldn’t kick her out of bed, but apparently Zhang has. His latest film is on a much smaller scale and features a cast of Chinese peasants, workers and bureaucrats, each of whom, in a way, play themselves. They’re all competent, and in some cases remarkable actors, but they all have day jobs corresponding to what is portrayed on the screen. The old teacher is a real teacher. The mayor is a real mayor, and the TV station executive is… well, you get the point. Amazingly, rather than hampering the film, this gimmick actually works and most performances are good. However, it is thirteen year old Minzhi (all actors also used their real names) who really carries the film. She broods effectively and the frustration shows on her face as her class runs amok in the early scenes. She wears determination on her sleeve, and when she smiles we share her sense of accomplishment.
Zhang Yimou has a penchant for getting into political trouble with his films, and this project was no exception. Ironically, this time the trouble came from the 1999 Cannes selection committee. The film was considered propaganda and rejected because of the relatively positive spin it puts on modern Chinese society. I guess you can’t win where Red China is concerned, unless you’re an American filmgoer.

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