A school in a remote Chinese village is so poor that they have to ration the chalk. And, unable to find a substitute teacher willing to spend a month in a rural area, they hire a 13-year-old girl who's barely older than the students under her tutelage. She's not the best teacher—she is just a child herself, after all.
But when one of her students, the 8-year-old class troublemaker, is sent to the big city to work, she and the kids become determined to bring him back. Her mission is motivated not by a streak of altruism, but, rather, she wants to ensure that she gets paid at the end of the month. She was told that, by the time her month of teaching is up, all her students must still be in school—not one less.
Her plucky determination in the big city is at once naive and admirable, as she morphs from a peasant girl with little street smarts into a young woman who seems to carry the burden of the nation's poor on her shoulders.
Yimou Zhang's appropriately titled 1999 masterpiece, Not One Less, packs an emotional wallop. Watching 27 poor children split two cans of Coke without fighting each other is one example of the movie's big heart, but it's the kids' determination to recover the missing child regardless of logic and lacking any fear of failure that most strongly hits you in the gut.
When the final credits roll and you see that there was not one professional actor in the entire film, the gravity of the story and its characters are elevated to a whole new level. Most of the roles mirror the non-actors' real life personas, as well as their names. Zhang even used hidden cameras and microphones in an attempt to capture their most authentic reactions, resulting in a huge shooting ratio of 35 to 1.
If this movie sounds even halfway appealing to you, rent or buy it now. You will not be unaffected. And when you do see it, let me know how much you cried.