From the Indexical to the Spectacle: On Zhang Yimou's Postmodern Turn in Not One Less

By Wang, Yiman | Journal of Film and Video, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

From the Indexical to the Spectacle: On Zhang Yimou's Postmodern Turn in Not One Less


Wang, Yiman, Journal of Film and Video


ZHANG YIMOU'S NOT ONE LESS (1999) has been seen as a documentary endeavor, one that pushes further the realistic strategy deployed in Qiuju da guansi [Story of Qiu Ju] (1992), in contrast to the highly stylized imagery in his allegorical "Red Trilogy": Hong gaoliang [Red Sorghum] (1987), yu Dou (1990), and Dahong denglong gaogaogua [Raise the Red Lantern] (1991). Taking the high drop-out rate in rural China as its subject, Not One Less seems to endorse the state-sponsored Hope Project Qdwang gongcheng), which aims to raise money to place drop-out rural children back in school; its goal is to guarantee nine years of compulsory education for all school-age children, regardless of their economic situation. The film's ending, according to most reviewers and critics, affirms the heroism of one village teacher and her contribution to the Hope Project. The concluding title states that the Hope Project has raised enough money to bring 15 percent of the rural dropouts back to school. By introducing this extra-diegetic information, the film seems to reaffirm its support for the Hope Project and its commitment to documentary aesthetics.

As they were for Zhang's 19805 films, the reviews of Not One Less were polarized along the political border of China. This time, however, Chinese official discourse championed the film, while the West showed more suspicion. According to the festival review committee, the film was excluded from the "Official Selection" section reserved for high profile films at the 1999 Cannes International Film Festival due to its overly propagandistic quality. This opinion was echoed by a number of Western reviewers, who severely criticized the easy solution provided at the end ofthefilm.Todd R. Ramlow, for example, observed that "this pat, happy ending is the propagandist equivalent of putting a BandAid on a bullet wound."This propagandistic Band-Aid evokes what Fredric Jameson calls a "fantasy bribe," deployed in mainstream Hollywood cinema, allowing the filmmaker to open up social issues only to gloss them over, so as not to disturb the social equilibrium premised upon the extant power configuration (29).

However, although they hold opposing views on this film, both the Chinese champions and the Western critics suffer from the simplistic assumption that the film means what it says. As Rey Chow eloquently argues, they miss Zhang's "dialectical narrative method, which is as astute in its cynicism towards the mediatized image as it is skilled in conveying a warm, sentimental story" (150). To an extent, the assumption of the film's transparency and indexicality is justified by Zhang's use of documentary aesthetics. Nevertheless, the indexical coding needs to be read in connection with Zhang's insertion of spectacles, which culminates in the TV show toward the end. In other words, only when we consider the apparent message of the film in relation to the significance of the TV show can we recognize Zhang's ambivalent coding and implicit critique of the Hope Project. Rey Chow suggests that Not One Less is a fable of migration and marks an epistemological shift from a "productionism" in the form of "quantifiable accumulation" to a mode of value production based on mediatized image and media events (147-48). Chow's perspicacious analysis highlights the role of modern audiovisual media in Zhang's film. I shall push further this analysis by contending that Zhang's film not only underscores the significance of the mediatized image, but also satirizes it through mimicry and demystification.

Instead of proffering an illusory fantasy resolution, the film illustrates Zhang Yimou's subversive tactics; he seemingly endorses the Hope Project while actually exposing and satirizing its exploitative "showbiz" quality. I show, first, that this quasi-documentary film is in fact carefully predicated upon spectacle construction, which becomes the target of Zhang's irony; I then show how, as a result, this apparently propagandistic film flips into polemic. …

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