The UW Cinematheque's "Beijing Underground" series concludes on Saturday night with a screening of He Jianjun's Postman--a lovely, lonely little film that, like the rest of the films in the series, was signed, sealed and delivered to us without first getting the government's stamp of approval. The result, once again, is a movie that pushes the envelope of what a Chinese movie can do. The older generation of Chinese directors--Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and the rest--have brought honor and glory to the People's Republic, from Yellow Earth to Shanghai Triad. But, with all due respect, their movies are like sumptuous wall-hangings compared to the street posters of He and his contemporaries. Instead of pre-revolutionary epics about family and country, we get the modern era's holy trinity: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Which is to say, East meets West in a cultural exchange that may not benefit Chinese film in the long run. But, for now, the development is like a breath of fresh air blowing across Tiananmen Square. For He Jianjun, that air appears to have originated in '60s art cinema--Antonioni, for example. A vague ennui (is there any other kind?) hangs over Postman, like fog. Dou, the title character, seems incapable of reaching out and touching someone. He shares an old dilapidated house with his sister, who keeps trying to set him up with "suitable" women, but something holds him back. "Why can people pour their hearts out in letters yet run out of words face to face?" he finally asks a female co-worker who's expressed interest in him. She doesn't know. And by that point, Dou's regularly reading other people's mail.
This opens up a whole world of detached intimacy for him--a call girl who pleads with an old lover to come back to her, an elderly couple whose children have moved far away, a gay novelist who's heading down the tubes. Not content to read their mail, Dou sometimes rewrites it, or shows up at their apartments, like an old friend they've never had the pleasure of meeting. The movie has a surprise in store for viewers. (It turns out Dou isn't always detached enough.) But where it truly excels is in the delineation of emptiness. At the end of a scene, after all the people have left, the camera just kind of hangs there for a second, as if it considers the room no more empty now than it was before. Its cold, drab settings redeemed by He's terrific eye, Postman beautifully fills in the spaces between people with lots and lots of nothing.