China’s new generation of independent filmmakers has found a richly distinctive voice in He Jianjun. His sophomore feature “Postman” observes an introverted outsider unable to get a grip on his own life who secretly begins intervening in the lives of others. Moving, plaintive and utterly compelling, this finely controlled drama, which won top honors at Rotterdam fest, stands to reap considerable exposure at international arthouse venues.
The director won admiration on the festival circuit with his 1993 debut “Red Beads,” made under the pseudonym of He Yi. Chinese government authorities however, failed to share that esteem, vetoing He’s and six colleagues’ involvement in any further filmmaking activity.
Shooting was already well under way on “Postman” when the ban was issued early last year. The Rotterdam Film Festival got involved via a completion grant from its film financing scheme after the production was set up through the fest’s project market.
Rotterdam staff also stepped in to help He smuggle the film out of China for post-production, which wrapped 24 hours before the Feb. 2 world premiere.
Set among the rundown housing and gray concrete apartment blocks of Beijing, “Postman” quietly homes in on its subjects with the aid of Wu Di’s poised camerawork.
The title character, Xiao Dou (Feng Yuanzheng), has lived all his life in the care of his sister (Liang Danni) following their parents’ death. Her attempts to pair the withdrawn young man with a girl and devote herself to her own marriage have been continually unsuccessful.
A post office employee in charge of installing letter boxes, Xiao Dou inherits the Happiness District mail route when his predecessor is dismissed after confessing to reading the letters he should be delivering. Spurred by this knowledge and the guessing games of forthright postal clerk Yun Qing (Huang Xin) about the letters’ contents, Xiao Dou slips into the same intrusive habit.
The postman becomes involved in a series of somber dramas and attempts to take control of each situation, with degrees of success.
The film invites readings on any number of levels, touching on themes of alienation, the death of face-to-face communication and the desire to play God, along with notions of privacy, censorship and the stifling nature of institutions. But it satisfies in dramatic terms, even when some of the story’s strands lack immediate clarity.
Wu’s lensing combines a distanced but attentive quality, often stepping back to watch through doors and windows, with a relaxed symmetry that unfailingly stops short of studied elegance.
Editing at times does little to facilitate comprehension of the more unwieldy digressions, but nonetheless establishes a lilting rhythm. Perfs are measured but affecting.