When Teacher Gao of the Shuiquan Primary School is called away for a month he is replaced by substitute Wei Minzhi, who, at 13 years of age, is not much older than most of her pupils. Numbers at the rural school have dropped from 40 to 28 in recent months and Wei Minzhi is offered an extra 10 yuan pay provided no further students leave. When bright but naughty 10-year-old Zhang Huike, fails to appear in class, Wei Minzhi learns he has been forced by his debt-ridden family to seek work in the city. With only a faint idea where he might be and very little money, Wei Minzhi sets off to the city alone, determined to find Zhang Huike and bring him back to the classroom.
13 year-old old Wei Minzhi, who's attracted to the role of substitute teacher at an isolated school by the promise of 50 yuan on the return of the real teacher Mr. Gao, as long as she doesn't lose a single pupil. The most mischievous of her class is Zhang Huike, a real terror of a child, who one day doesn't appear. He's been sent to the city to earn money because his family is so poor. Dogged doesn't even begin to describe the determination with which Wei sets off to track him down.
The completely natural performances of the children are so wonderful, Wei Minzhi was actually cast, but all of them are just real kids. The sense of reality Zhang Yimou is able to bring to the film is extraordinary and absolutely delightful. For an apparently humourless child Wei is truly funny. But for all its tenderness and humour the charm of this seemingly simple tale thinly disguises its social agenda – where rural regions seem to be missing out big time on China's economic boom. Visually the film is far from lush, it's cinematography is a perfect accompaniment to its realistic aims.