This is the second film from director He Jianjun, who has worked on pictures with Fifth Generation film makers Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), and Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite). His first effort, 1993's Red Beads, won the Fipresci Award during that year's Rotterdam International Film Festival. Postman captured the Tiger Award at the same venue earlier this year, although there was some initial uncertainty about whether director He would be able to show this film after the Chinese government tried to stop its completion. The movie had to be smuggled to Europe where a grant allowed it to be finished.
After viewing Postman, I'll probably never be certain of the privacy of any correspondence sent through the mail. Although this film takes place in China, the nature of human curiosity allows for similar events to occur any place in the world. After all, who can say that the secrets of a letter have not been perused by one or more mail handlers? However, Postman is not designed to foster paranoia. Instead, it deals with at least two compelling subjects: voyeurism and the inability of one man to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
The voyeurism of Xiadou (Fang Yuanzheng) is not the "typical" sort. Quiet and introverted, the young postal worker spends much of his time alone in his room. When an older man loses his route after admitting to reading letters he was entrusted to deliver, Xiadou is offered the job. He accepts, but soon the same fascination grips him. Cautious and tentative at first, he purloins a few letters, takes them home, and opens them. Once Pandora's Box is unlidded, however, Xiadou is hopelessly enthralled, and he becomes obsessed by the lives of those in his district. His actions go beyond merely reading; he rewrites letters, meets people face-to-face, and visits abandoned flats. Along the way, Xiadou's sexuality is awakened as a result of contact with a young prostitute. This leads to an incestuous tryst with his sister -- a relationship which devastates her but leaves him unaffected. In fact, guilt is something Xiadou never feels, even though his meddling causes confusion and heartbreak, and perhaps even contributes to a death.
With Postman, director He Jianjun explores the connection between voyeurism, sexuality, and a failure of conscience. The movie is also a compelling character study. Xiadou starts out as a normal, shy young man. By the final scene, he is a living example of amorality, seeing all life as a game for him to indulge in. He denies culpability, even when it's his own sister who is traumatized.
Certainly, Postman traces an extreme instance -- a pastime that has evolved into an obsession. This is not some harmless case of glancing through an open window. In Xiadou's view, his own life has meaning only through whatever vicarious pleasure he can derive by reading the mail of others. Given an opportunity to go out with an attractive co-worker, he would rather stay home to read his day's "stash." The script illustrates the dangers of such behavior, both to the innocents who become unwitting victims, and to Xiadou's own personality.
The difficulty with this film is that it's often confusing and difficult to follow. The editing is choppy and there are scenes where it's hard to determine what's going on. This abstruseness is not merely an artistic conceit -- it's a legitimate impediment to the full appreciation of the director's message. There is a great deal of value in what this movie has to say, but there are times when the difficulty of extracting the themes becomes nearly counterproductive. Nevertheless, despite this imperfect, disconcerting style, the material is still provacative enough to make Postman of more than passing interest.