Director Zhang Yimou's Not One Less is a marvelous companion piece to his acclaimed 1992 film The Story of Qiu Ju. In both films, Zhang eschews the lush camerawork and design of mesmerizing pictures like Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad for an unadorned, documentary style using real-life Chinese locations. But in Qiu Ju, Zhang could always count on the charisma and beauty of his former star, Gong Li, to hold an audience's attention; here, he risks using an entirely non-professional cast, essentially playing themselves in a fictional situation. The gamble pays off handsomely in a poignant story of poverty and spirit reminiscent of the great Italian neo-realists (and today's Iranian new wave).

At the center of Not One Less is 13-year-old Wei Minzhi, playing a 13-year-old named Wei Minzhi, a naive girl recruited to substitute for a rural schoolteacher who is leaving for one month to care for his ailing mother. The class of 40 students, covering the first to fourth grades, has already lost 12 students, and Wei is promised an extra 10 yuan if she manages to keep the current attendance intact-thus the title, Not One Less. Wei's inexperience is obvious-she doesn't so much teach as impassively bark orders and try to keep her class in their seats. One day, her most mischievous pupil, Zhang Huike, doesn't turn up-Wei learns he's been sent to the city to find work and earn some money for his family. Determined to recover her student, Wei puts her class to work moving bricks to raise money for the bus fare to the city. (The forced labor is questionable, but out of their toils comes an excellent math lesson.) Having gravely underestimated the price of a ticket, Wei winds up hitching a ride, and discovers that locating her absent pupil in bustling Jiangjiakou City is much more difficult than she ever could have imagined.

As fascinating as the early scenes in tiny, barren Zhenningbao Village are, the dull oppressiveness of that environment does get you longing for a change of scene. The city half of the film offers a startling contrast, as Wei deals with crowded streets, indifferent functionaries, and the lack of food or shelter. But Wei's innocence is also a blessing; she never fully comprehends the improbability of success and simply keeps grinding away at her task, like a stubborn worker ant. And somehow, she hones in on the most likely path to victory, as her sheer persistence brings attention to her plight.

Not One Less brilliantly integrates the worlds of documentary and narrative, with Zhang coaxing natural performances that resonate more powerfully once we realize how closely his 'actors' resemble their roles. Wei's initial lack of self-awareness gives way to powerful feelings, as her character comes to realize the urgency of her mission is not just a matter of getting paid-this unformed actress turns out to be a real discovery. A deceptively simple tale whose emotional force catches you by surprise, Not One Less is one of the most humane films we're likely to see this year.

--Kevin Lally