33 Postcards provokes little emotional or intellectual response other than active irritation with its dullness, which is so stifling it almost scans as an act of audience hostility. The canned moralizing, devoid of behavioral observation or common sense, is reminiscent of the Christian genre films associated with studios like Sherwood Pictures. Those films, though asinine, at least have a discernible point (to sell you religious dogma with stories that would strike a toddler as naïve). 33 Postcards, however, is a jumbled mixture of redemptive uplift and genre hijinks.
Director Pauline Chan fuses together two reliable farce scenarios: the foreigner abroad and the gullible innocent who’s unknowingly helping bad guys perpetrate their criminal schemes. Mei Mei (Zhu Lin) is a Chinese orphan preoccupied with her Australian sponsor, Dean Randall (Guy Pearce), who sends her postcards detailing his adventures with his loving family frolicking with the animals of the outback. For ludicrous reasons not worth detailing, Mei Mei soon finds herself in Australia discovering that Dean’s actually a career criminal serving a prison stretch. Still ever grateful and devoted, Mei Mei sticks around and gets a job cleaning cars for an enterprise that’s (laughably) obviously illegal.
But the film isn’t intended as farce, as we’re supposed to be authentically moved by Mei Mei and Dean’s blossoming friendship. 33 Postcards has a major narrative problem for a redemption film: The redemption we’re expected to invest in has already happened long before the story we’re watching begins. Dean’s already atoned for his sins and has effectively transformed himself into a cipher with no temptations or significant internal conflicts; he’s just a decent guy who mysteriously decided one day to invest in the happiness of an orphan.
Mei Mei, though, is the film’s insurmountable problem. Chan delivers one legitimate surprise about 30 minutes in, and it’s unintentional: Mei Mei’s supposed to be 16 years old, which will lead you to wonder if she’s mentally troubled or just plain deranged. The girl we’ve known up until this point, and continue to follow throughout the film—who favors pigtails and brightly colored overalls, obsesses over a man she’s never met, and blindly accepts everything she’s told at face value—would appear to possess the emotional development of a not-very-bright 10-year-old.
That might be forgivable, or merely odd, but Chan infuriatingly glorifies Mei Mei’s life-endangering stupidity as a testament to nobility in a fashion that resembles Robert Zemeckis’s treatment of his protagonist in Forrest Gump. We were meant to admire Gump’s ability to maintain a stiff upper lip as he endured adversity, despite his inability to fully comprehend much of what was happening to him. Mei Mei is similarly applauded for stumbling through a variety of dangers, and she’s so sickeningly innocent, and so relentlessly celebrated by Chan, that you may find yourself perversely rooting for the bad guys, who at the very least, share our irritation with this creepy and insufferable sprite.