Review: 33 Postcards (2011)

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Cast: Guy Pearce, Zhu Lin, Claudia Karvan
Director: Pauline Chan
Country: Australia | China
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: 33 Postcards opens in limited release on Friday, May 17th. If you’ve already seen the film we’d love to hear your thoughts on it, or if you’re looking forward to seeing it this weekend, please tell us in the comments section below or in our new Next Projection Forums.

There’s a terrifically ironic plot point in The Good Man, an otherwise misguided Irish film that premiered last year, where the affluent banker antihero uses his charity sponsorship of an African child to clear his own conscience, blissfully unaware that the very deals he is hatching are those whose consequences only exacerbate the need for financial aid. Such moralistic greed, even in charity, is typical of the Western world, and forms the bedrock of Pauline Chan’s 33 Postcards, an Australian-Chinese coproduction exploring the relationship between a guilt-ridden convict and the orphan he sponsors when she arrives, having fled from her touring concert group, in Sydney to meet him.

Guy Pearce manages a performance of unlikely physical and psychological complexity, his wearied gaze—always averting eye contact—that of a man broken ten times over.

334Framed within a well-worn story of prison top dogs and protection payments though he may be, Guy Pearce manages a performance of unlikely physical and psychological complexity, his wearied gaze—always averting eye contact—that of a man broken ten times over. Shoulders hunched, feet shuffling, voice almost indistinct, Pearce throws himself into the construction of this character and delivers work that stands entirely on the opposite end of the spectrum to, say, his efforts in Lawless. He’s a performer capable of commendable restraint, put to excellent use here in crafting a self-effacingly inactive protagonist defined, predominantly, by his weaknesses. For all the cliché of his narrative trajectory, for all the false development played out in the story, Pearce manages consistently to make an engagingly human creation of this figure.

The mental trauma of this conflicted character, which Pearce does so well to convey, finds some fitting expression in Chan’s implementation of creative sound design, one of few inventive directorial decisions that—though we’ve seen it hundreds of times before—helps draw us into the mindset of the character. It’s a more engaging technique than anything else Chan musters, alas; this is her first film behind the camera since 1999, and it’s not entirely difficult to understand why. From an often televisual aesthetic to a scattering of travel sequences that look as if they’ve been shot by way of rear projection, a cinematic experience 33 Postcards is not. Impersonally shot with little characterisation ever expressed by way of lighting, this is a film that tells rather than shows, and tells all too clunkily at that.

From an often televisual aesthetic to a scattering of travel sequences that look as if they’ve been shot by way of rear projection, a cinematic experience 33 Postcards is not.

333In just her second screen appearance, and first in any sort of significant role, Zhu Lin does well to keep up with Pearce, though the wavering confidence of Chan and her co-writers Philip Dalkin and Martin Edmond consigns all too much of the young girl’s role to expositional purposes. Problematic too is the tonal incompatibility of the romantic subplot with which she’s saddled, spelling serious trouble for the film’s ability to muster any sufficient sense of narrative cohesion. Hers is a story of light-hearted life lessons, her sheltered orphanage upbringing giving way to a head-on confrontation with the gritty realities of the wider world. Too often resigned to silly, pseudo-slapstick comedy—her struggles with high heels are played with the intent of hilarity—this half of the narrative acts only as an anchor to the other, robbing it of the opportunity to truly explore its potential depths.

There’s a great deal of admirable intent in Chan’s vision, lovingly crafted and often sweetly—if somewhat frigidly—realised as it is. But, like a naïve orphan trotting obliviously deeper into the ranks of a crime ring, 33 Postcards can’t seem to spot the dangers growing around it, and haplessly skips toward an unseemly end. Its final act is a teeth-gritting succession of problematic scenes and pedestrian plot development, less a satisfactory resolution for the characters in whom we’ve been enticed to invest than it is a conformist’s paradise of playing precisely to expectations, and an out-of-her-depth director’s desperate effort to interweave the untenable strands of her subplots.

[notification type=”star”]48/100 ~ BAD. Like a naïve orphan trotting obliviously deeper into the ranks of a crime ring, 33 Postcards can’t seem to spot the dangers growing around it, and haplessly skips toward an unseemly end.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.