33 Postcards (2011)
“Wishing you were here”
Director: Pauline Chan
Cast: Guy Pearce, Zhu Lin, Claudia Karvan
Synopsis: Dean Randall has sponsored a young Chinese orphan Mei Mei for many years, when she arrives in Sydney out of the blue to thank him, their lives are changed forever.
Watching 33 Postcards, Pauline Chan’s small-scale Australian-Chinese co-production is a little like watching someone attempting to force two mismatched pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to interlock even though it’s obvious that they don’t fit. Somehow, what starts out as an intimate two header between a 16-year-old Chinese orphan girl and the Australian prisoner who has acted as her sponsor for ten years mutates into a lukewarm crime drama which belies the fact that the film’s writers — Chan, Philip Dalkin and Martin Edmond — clearly have little insight into the criminal underworld — or the prison system, come to that — and have carried out inadequate research to trick us into believing they do.
Zhu Lin gives an endearing performance as Mei Mei, the Chinese orphan. Her name translates as Little Sister, the name she was given by the orphanage which took her in when she was abandoned by her father as a toddler. Mei Mei grows into a precocious teenager at the orphanage, who is hugely popular with the younger members of the choir which she helps to conduct now that she is too old to sing with them. For this reason she is allowed to accompany them on a tour of Australia, which affords her the opportunity to finally meet with the benefactor who has sponsored her education for the past ten years. The only problem is that the benefactor failed to respond to the orphanage’s written request that they be allowed to meet, which means that Miss Chen (Elaine Jin), the adult responsible for the tour, cannot permit her to approach whoever it might be.
But Mei Mei isn’t the type to be discouraged by such embargoes, and slips away at the first opportunity to visit the address to which she has always addressed her letters. However, the address is located in a run-down suburban street whereas her benefactor had written to her that he lived by the coast with his wife and two kids. And the man who answers the door isn’t Mei Mei’s sponsor but his brother Gary (Rhys Muldoon). It turns out that her benefactor is Dean Randall (Guy Pearce), and he is currently doing time in the local prison. Young Carl (Lincoln Lewis), the son of Gary’s employer who happens to show up while Mei Mei is there, offers to take her to visit Dean. Perhaps understandably, Dean is more than a little unsettled to suddenly have his long-distance protÃ©gÃ© turn up out of the blue — especially as he’s been feeding her all these lies for the past ten years, and the meeting doesn’t go particularly well.
Mei Mei is the persistent type though, and with the help of Carl, she continues visiting Dean until a tentative relationship is established. Unfortunately, she also falls in with Carl’s mates, all of whom seem to be employed by his criminal father, who organises the theft and re-sale of high performance motors. With indecent haste, Mei Mei is soon tottering around on spike heels and slapping make up on her face, and while a growing warmth develops between her and her surrogate father, she is slowly being sucked into a criminal lifestyle.
33 Postcards’ strongest moments all reside within the movie’s first 45 minutes, and are almost exclusively shared by Zhu Lin and Pearce, both of whom give strong, believable performances, even though Pearce has to contend with a man whose character doesn’t quite seem appropriate for his history. Presumably, his sponsorship of Mei Mei is inspired by regret for the chance of having a family which his past indiscretion has now prevented him from achieving, but his motivations are never satisfactorily explored by the screenplay. Nevertheless, the scenes Pearce shares with Zhu Lin, whose mere presence imbues the prison with a colour it lacks in her absence, highlight the fact that by committing the one selfless act of sponsoring her he has preserved the good that resides within him in an environment that might otherwise have erased it entirely. Zhu Lin, for whom this is a debut leading role, is an irresistibly likeable actress who invests Mei Mei with a natural warmth and vulnerability.
Unfortunately, instead of sticking with a subject with which they show a good degree of skill and sensitivity, Chan et al make the fatal mistake of widening the scope of the movie to include the organised crime sub-plot which is so poorly conceived that it overshadows the entire movie. It’s inconceivable that a career criminal like Carl’s father would consider taking an inexperienced teenage girl along on a job, and it’s just as ridiculous that a prisoner would be housed in the same prison as the villain against whom he has agreed to testify. Such stupid developments, which are presumably inserted because the writers can find no other way to trigger the emotions they are looking to evoke, aren’t just irritating, they’re downright infuriating, showing a disregard for the realities of life, and for the intelligence of their audience.