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The heart wrenching story of a rural school in China, Not One Less, was a lot more work than a 'normal' film which uses professional actors, its director Zhang Yimou tells JIMMY THOMSON at the Venice Film Festival where it won The Golden Lion.

Chinaís best known director, Zhang Yimou, is never one to shirk a challenge. The man revered both in his homeland and overseas for his glorious Oscar-nominated epics, Raise The Red Lantern and Ju Dou, could today be making sweeping movies with the biggest stars in the country, full of colour and light and magnificent costumes.

"won The Golden Lion"

But not only has the extraordinarily talented film-maker steadfastly refused to go to Hollywood, he also last year turned his back on pomp and circumstance, deciding to devote himself to a modest movie about Chinese rural life, with not a single professional actor involved.

Once again, he has emerged triumphant. His latest film, Not One Less, won The Golden Lion (top prize) when it premiered at the 1999 Venice International Film Festival, and a host of overseas awards as it opened around the world. And it is bringing a starkly moving picture of life in the Chinese countryside to global audiences who have never before been exposed to such a real insight into contemporary culture.

Itís not only they who have been overwhelmed by the film, either. Throughout China it has been playing to packed houses of both country folk and city dwellers who had lost sight of what it is like to be living outside the main centres.

"The film was distributed in May 1999 in China and became very successful," says Yimou, through an interpreter, smiling widely. "I didnít think a film about a rural school would be so successful in China, but is. A lot of people cry when they see the film and instantly take money out of their pockets to donate."

"a heart-rending search"

Not One Less is a terribly touching tale of a little village school whose teacher has to be away for a month to tend to his ailing mother. The mayor finds a substitute: a 13-year-old whoís barely finished school herself, Wei Minzhi. Her task is two-fold. Of course, she has to run classes but, most importantly, she has to make sure no children drop out of the school, which is already suffering a dramatic fall in its number of pupils.

So when a ten year old disappears to the city to earn money to help his debt-ridden family, she also travels there to try and find him. Itís a heart-rending search.

The extraordinary thing about the film is that everyone who took part simply played themselves. The village mayor is a real life village mayor, the teacher is a village teacher, the kids are just country schoolchildren, and 13-year-old pupil Wei Minzhi was played by 13-year-old schoolgirl Wei Minzhi.

"It meant many takes and was very difficult to make," says Yimou, 49, a slight figure in dark grey suit jacket and pants and black T-shirt.

"no professional actors"

"There were no professional actors. The girl who played the lead role was chosen from tens of thousands of children. Each was given an exam. We sent collaborators to all schools in area, a process that took 3-4 months. We had to look for a brave and smart girl able to speak in public and cry and sing and who was not too shy. Each one we auditioned was given five minutes to perform."

For the very last screen test, the final candidates were made to stand in a crowded city street and yell whatever came into their heads at the top of their lungs. Some got too nervous and couldnít do it. Wei just cut loose and shouted herself hoarse. She got the part.

After the film was finished and audiences started seeing her amazing performance, a number of acting schools wrote to Wei, asking if she wanted to take formal acting classes. She asked Yimou what she should do.

"I said no," he says, simply. "She may be able to play herself, but probably not to become a real actor and portray complex characters. I advised her to continue her studies and go to high school and she did. A school invited her to go to a big city and study at no cost. And now she wants to become a teacher."

"the subject of a great deal of controversy"

He smiles broadly. Not One Less was the subject of a great deal of controversy around the Cannes Film Festival when it was rejected by a jury who feared it might have been propaganda on behalf of the Chinese Government. Yimou withdrew his film in disgust. Yes, it had to be slightly re-edited to satisfy his countryís censors, but it was neither pro the Chinese system or against.

The Venice verdict looks to be a complete vindication of his stand. Chinese rural schools are shown to be battling through despite terrible poverty and a shortage of even the most basic resources, while all donations made by audiences are being put into a special fund for country schools. It also shows the sharp schisms in contemporary Chinese society between the cities and the country, hardly the united image of sophisticated progress backed by an Arcadian idyll of bucolic pastoral life the regime likes to promote.

While the actors are all painfully real, so too are the settings Ė the film was made in Zhenningbao Village, Hebei Province in Chinaís south east Ė as is the story. The writer of the novel on which the film is based (who also wrote the screenplay) was Shi Xiangsheng who worked as a teacher when banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Many of the events described actually happened.

"The biggest problem was to make the children believeÖ"

"The biggest problem was to make the children believe everything was for real, even though they were surrounded by lights and cameras, and were on a movie set," says Yimou.

"We wanted to get the children to believe everything was real; thatís why it took us so many takes to get it right."

Yimou himself has plenty of experience of rural life that he could draw upon while making Not One Less. He also went to the country during the Cultural Revolution and worked on farms and as a labourer in a spinning mill, while still pursuing his hobby of photography.

Now, of course, he is perhaps the foremost director in China, responsible for bringing its unique history, atmosphere and stories to the outside world, ever since his directorial debut in 1988 with Red Sorghum which won Best Picture at the Berlin Film Festival.

"against impossible odds"

Since then, he has diversified his craft amazingly. In 1997, he directed the Puccini opera Turandot in Florence, Italy: it was a sensational success against impossible odds.

"In the beginning, I was not interested in opera at all," he says, frankly. "In fact, I didnít know what opera was like. Then the opera house in Florence invited me to direct its production, so I started learning about opera and found it interesting. The big drawback, though, is that I donít know what they are saying!"

In the end, that proved no hurdle at all. Now he has even taken on board two more musical projects, to direct Mozartís The Magic Flute in Germany and to direct a ballet based on a Raise The Red Lantern script he has just completed. Then, thereís a new movie about to go into production, different again. Itís an elegant, stylised love story, filmed both in black and white and colour.

"Iím not familiar with what happens there"

Yet while Hollywood keeps banging on Yimouís door, the director insists heís not home to their calls. "No, I would not like to make films abroad," he insists. He spreads his hands and shrugs dismissively. "Iím not familiar with what happens there," he explains simply.

China has enough stories of its own to keep him going for a long, long time yet.

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