The tender, thoughtful, elegiac Chinese movie Postmen in the Mountains is based upon a story written more than a decade ago, and the people who made it -- director Huo Jianqi, and his screenwriter/wife, Si Wu -- filmed it in 1997. So their drama largely pre-dates the changes that have made rural life even harder for the people left behind in China's emerging market economy.
As more young Chinese people move to cities, provincial life has started to decay, and the government seems indifferent toward those left behind. But you won't learn any of this from Huo's film, which takes place mostly along the roads connecting villages that speckle the verdant mountains of China's Hunan province. It's the story of a father in his late 40s who's handing over his job of postman to his 24-year-old son, who grew up hardly knowing his traveling old man, and who dreams of a city life he'll never know, having decided to literally follow in his father's footsteps.
For the son's first trip on his mail route -- which covers 70 miles and takes three days to complete -- dad goes along, accompanied by his lean and hearty German shepherd, who can read his master's mind. In one village, father and son read a fabricated letter to a blind old woman whose grandson left for college -- the first from their region to do so -- and never looked back. In another, they congratulate a young would-be journalist on his good grades in school.
All along the way, the father teaches the son about their customers' nuances and needs. And of course, the two men come to know and value each other after years of passive estrangement.
To Western eyes, Postmen in the Mountains is several things: a glimpse of a simple, resilient, isolated life in a place that's unimaginably far away; an earnest paean to the working man, to whom attention must be paid; and a familiar but still resonant story of fathers and sons. ("A son is grown when he can carry his father," says the younger man, as he literally hoists his father piggyback across a placid river.)
But I wonder if Chinese audiences won't see this film as propaganda that benignly tries to honor a traditional way, or as a delicate critique of a government that ignores the needs of an increasingly marginalized Chinese subculture. In softly spoken doses, Huo lets it be known that the father, a long-time civil servant, has no affection for government types, who are too removed from the people, or for intellectuals, who leave their rural families behind. Call it a velvet cultural revolution if you like. To understand the real consequences of the new China for the old, you'll need to do some reading. In the meantime, enjoy this lovely little drama, which earns its treacle with good intentions. In Mandarin, with subtitles.