Film Review: 33 PostcardsThe “oh-so-innocent waif and big old baddie” odd-couple formula dates back to D.W. Griffith, but this muddled effort does nothing to merit its questionable revival.
Overseas foster children rarely get to know what’s really going on with their adoptive parents, and vice-versa, but the duo in 33 Postcards—Dean Randall (Guy Pearce), serving time in Australia for manslaughter, and Mei Mei (Zhu Lin), an orphan in China who sings in a choir and is about to visit Down Under on a concert tour—seem particularly clueless.
Mei Mei is bent on finally meeting her mysterious benefactor since childhood, and a series of improbable coincidences finds her escaping her choir to see him for the first time in stir, and then becoming involved in a car-theft ring whose members include Randall’s seemingly holier-than-thou brother (Rhys Muldoon). At first resistant to Mei Mei’s pleading gamine charms, Dean becomes worried when he hears of this turn of events and, to get out of jail and help her, he courageously volunteers to testify against a fellow inmate.
Director Pauline Chan spins quite a tangled and improbable web in 33 Postcards, but its very unlikelihood manages to be its winsome charm, as well as its eventual undoing. The ingratiatingly perky appeal of Zhu Lin is an immense asset; although her Mei Mei is so completely innocent a waif that she makes Miyoshi Umeki in Flower Drum Song seem as sophisticated as Tallulah Bankhead, Lin’s utter naturalness and sweetness put you solidly in her corner Yes, even when she’s saying, “This is bad thing you do. No do it!” to those big bad car thieves. When she looks at Dean and says, “You are my family now,” only a stone would be unmoved.
Pearce has always struck me as a somewhat lightweight actor, and this is all too apparent in a role that calls for a tragic gravitas that might help you ignore questions in your head like: Where did he get the money to support an orphan all these years? Unfortunately, as the film unspools, more and more questions pertaining to the often-haphazard exposition crop up, and by the end any commitment you might have to watching it dissipates into mere semi-interested observation. Dean’s martyrdom at the hands of the inmate he rats on is inevitable, given Chan’s heavy-handed use of ominous scene after scene between them.
Chan seems oblivious to the way credibility insistently seeps out of her film and bustles on, heading cheerfully towards one of those meant-to-be-shatteringly-heartwarming finales showing Mei-Mei reunited with her choir and conducting the little angels who give forth with every drop of lung power. The whole thing is captured in glowing tones by cinematographer Toby Oliver, whose work, especially his lensing of scenic Chinese and Australian vistas, is a real plus. His efforts are particularly ravishing in the unnecessary but pretty fantasy scenes showing Dean as the wildlife park ranger he pretends to be, going lyrically about his—in the heavy Aussie-speak employed here—“raynger” duties looking after the “waldlife.”