Sometimes a director needs a little luck to get his career off the ground. Nashan Naren Nagou [Postmen in the Mountains] is the type of film that could only be unearthed by the mere randomness of hype. Back then Jianqi Huo was a complete nobody, even so his film was picked up for international distribution. I loved it the first time I watched it, but Chinese cinema changed a lot over the past 15 years, so I was looking forward to see if Huo's breakthrough film had managed to survive the test of time.
Even though it's perfectly possible for Asian films to achieve a certain level of recognition in the West, those credits are rarely extended to the director (bar a handful exceptions of course). So while Postmen in the Mountains received positive criticism, Huo had to start from square one when he released his next film. It's probably one of the main reasons why it's so hard for Asian cinema to get a foot in the door here. You may be a talented director, but with each film you make you have to prove yourself all over again.
That said, it's already a small miracle Postmen in the Mountains made it to the West in the first place, because it's hardly a film with broad international appeal. Apart from some local folklore (which always does well over here), the film is virtually void of any dramatic impulses and consequently "suffers" from slow pacing. It's interesting because the premise leaves plenty of room for drama, Hou just chose a different path for his characters. What you're left with is some Ghibli-like rural charm spread over a 90 minute walk.
The film documents the succession of a local mailman working in the Hunan mountains. The job of mailman is a little different from what we're used to, a mailman in Hunan generally leaves on a three-day journey through the mountains, on foot, visiting different villages while delivering and collecting letters and packages. When the old mailman retires, his son, who never got to see much of his dad, is appointed as his follow-up. When they make the trip together (a one-time experience), they finally get a chance to get to know each other a little better.
Postmen in the Mountains is a gorgeous looking film, though it must be said that part of its visual splendor comes from the amazing scenery. The Hunan mountains are as much part of the film's visual identity as the cinematography itself. Not that the cinematography is bad, mind you, the lighting is exquisite, the colors are vibrant and warm and some of the shots will linger long after the film has finished, but the environment really is a character of its own here and plays a big part in the overall visual impression.
The soundtrack too adds a lot to the overall atmosphere. Traditional Chinese instruments and sounds aren't shunned, but they are combined with soothing ambient sounds. Even though it's typical string-based 80s ambient (think Brian Eno and Steve Roach) and not the more modern processed-sounds type variant, it's still pretty progressive. Especially when used in a Chinese film about traditional values. It's a really nice addition that made the film that more relaxing.
The cast is small but solid. Rujun Ten (of Red Sorghum fame) and Ye Liu (this was his breakthrough film) do a great job as father and son. They seem to share a connection that perfectly translates the feelings of their characters towards each other. As for the rest of the cast, I wouldn't be surprised if they were actually local folk who were asked to participate in the film. Whatever the case though, they come off as genuine and believable, which is a big plus for a film like this.
The father-son theme is well executed and a dash of local folklore adds some extra spice, but when all is said and done Postmen in the Mountains is a film about two guys taking a three-day trip through the mountains. If you want narrative and dramatic impulses, this film won't be for you. If, on the other hand, you want a film that feels like a small vacation, make it a triple bill with Shinkokyo no Hitsuyo and Omohide Poro Poro and simply sit back and relax.
I must say that Postmen in the Mountains lost little of its appeal over the years. Maybe it's because the film feels rather timeless, showing a part of China that looks as if time has had no influence there, or simply because I have a soft spot for Asian low-drama rural cinema. The bottom line is that I still enjoyed it immensely. Jianqi Huo is one of China's hidden gems, a director who makes films with soul and warmth. It's an easy recommend, if you can stand the slow pacing that is.