China’s new generation of independent filmmakers has found a richly distinctive voice in He Jianjun. His sophomore feature, “The 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. Perhaps responding less to the content of the films than to the growing number of directors working outside of official film industry structures and submitting their work to offshore fests without government endorsement, the authorities slapped a ban on He and six colleagues, vetoing their involvement in any further filmmaking.
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, the Hubert Bals Fund, after the production was set up through the fest’s project market, Cinemart. Rotterdam staff also stepped in to help He smuggle the film out of China Jan. 19 for post-production in Europe, which wrapped 24 hours before the Feb. 2 world premiere.
A prime exponent of the “sixth generation” of Sino filmmakers, which succeeds established names like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige (both of whom He worked with), the director distances himself conspicuously from his fifth-generation counterparts with a simpler, more intimate focus that’s decidedly more European in approach.
Set among the run-down housing and gray concrete apartment blocks of Beijing, the film quietly homes in on its subjects with the aid of Wu Di’spoised camerawork. Fluid tracking shots glide along the buildings or float down from ceilings to floors, penetrating into the heart of the houses but retaining a circumspect detachment from their inhabitants.
The title character, Xiao Dou (Feng Yuanzheng), has lived all his life in the care of his sister (Liang Danni), following their parents’ death at a young age. Her attempts to pair off the withdrawn young man with a girl and devote herself to her own marriage have been continually unsuccessful.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 contents of letters, Xiao Dou inexorably slips into the same intrusive habit.
The postman becomes involved in a series of somber human dramas, from a tormented love affair to the troubles of a singer-turned-prostitute to the suicide of a youth. In each case, he attempts to take control of the situation, with varying degrees of success. He forges a letter to bust up the affair, makes fleeting, awkward contact with the hooker and, acting out of misguided compassion, he allows the dead youth’s parents to keep waiting for news of their son.
Most surprising and emotionally wrenching of the dramas he stumbles upon is the tragic relationship of two gay junkies, in which the direct acknowledgement of AIDS and graphic descriptions of a drug-induced state of mind stand out as remarkably frank for mainland Chinese cinema. Xiao Dou’s physical entry into the couple’s life ultimately brings shattering changes.
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 also satisfies in dramatic terms, even when some of the story’s strands lack immediate clarity, such as the revelation of incest between Xiao Dou and his sister.
Several factors point to the influence of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Love.” Both films have a post office worker as protagonist, as well as a similar tone, a dismal suburban setting, an interest in voyeurism and a pragmatic view of human weaknesses.
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 easy comprehension of the story’s more unwieldy digressions, but nonetheless establishes a lilting rhythm, amusingly punctuated by bursts of staccato percussion as Yun Qing frenetically stamps the daily mail stack. Performances are measured but affecting.