Not One Less Not One LessDirected by Zhang Yimou ...

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Not One LessDirected 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regime had tightened the screws before?its botched attempt to have the 1990 Oscar nomination for Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou withdrawn was one very public failure?and would continue to refine its restrictions later.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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