Sometimes less is more. The new film Postmen in the Mountains, shot in 1998 but only recently delivered to America from China, is certainly proof of that. This tiny, deceptively simple story concentrates on an aging mail carrier, whose job it is to lug a mail sack through the rugged mountains of China's rural Hunan province. Forced to retire due to increasingly painful arthritis, the postman passes his job onto his son. The entire film takes place over the course of a single journey in which the father (along with a faithful guide dog) teaches his son the ins and outs of the laborious mail route. That's pretty much it for the plot. There are no surprising twists, no giant crises, no big action sequences. And yet, the film carries an emotional weight far heavier than most Hollywood tearjerkers.
The story, at its heart, is one of understanding and reconciliation between father and son. The two characters, never mentioned by name, are played with extraordinary subtlety by Teng Rugan (Red Sorghum) and Liu Ye (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress). Dad, it seems, has spent most of his adult life away from his family, trudging through steep mountain passes and handing out mail to strangers. Sonny boy, although mindful of his father's sacrifice, can't help but feel a little resentment for the father he never got to know.
At first, the son fails to grasp why his father has labored his entire life in a difficult and seemingly unrewarding position. The son respects his father's position, but regards the postman job as little more than a stepping stone to some more lucrative government position. Dad's got his own growth issues too. He's facing down a difficult transition. He's got to ease back into the life of a rural farmer and reattach himself to the wife he loves dearly, but understands only a fraction as well as his son does.
As they hike from village to village, the duo encounter the various villagers who rely on the elder postman for more than just mail. Seems that dad isn't the crusty old bird he seems to be. He has a genuine love of these simple people, and has made them his second family over the years. In one village, for example, he is the only outside contact for an elderly blind woman whose grandson has gone off to find work in the big city. In another, he may be required to hand deliver one particular letter because the lady in question has had a recent feud with the village's mayor and refuses to go into town. Through these tiny, personal touches we come to know our aging postman and see the regret with which he is giving up his job.
Father and son don't have any teary climactic reunion or anything. The son isn't some stereotypical rebel—he's just never had the chance to see his father's work. Watching his father perform his simple duty to proud perfection, he realizes that his father has made as much of a mark on this world as anyone. When the torch (and the dog, of course) are finally passed, viewers will be hard-pressed to push back that lump in their throat.
Visually, the film is gorgeous, evoking a strong nostalgic feeling for a way of life that is fading away, even in the backwoods of China. You don't have to have any great understanding of Chinese culture to revel this film's picturesque cinematography, lifelike detail and melancholy charm. Director Jianqi Huo has crafted a beautiful, funny and deeply touching work of art for viewers around the world. With this one eloquently quiet film, he leaps to the forefront of top Asian talent alongside Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express) and Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). See it, and then go hug a mailman.
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