Of jewelry, mail and fathers
When I was a kid, on the occasional Tuesday, always Tuesday, I’d be informed that I’d be skipping school to accompany my father to New York City.My father, who owns a jewelry store in the New Jersey suburbs, went most Tuesdays to 47th Street – the Diamond District – to buy, sell, deliver, pick up, haggle, hustle and kibitz with the New York jewelry dealers.My first few trips had me in amazement. The one block or so of Manhattan was jammed with people, many of them Hasidic Jews with foreign accents and foreign clothes. Every building was jammed with booths and counters and offices of watch repairmen, diamond setters, gold dealers. We took back elevators and hidden hallways to shabby repair shops and luxurious boutiques that you had to wait to be buzzed in to enter. We ate lunch seated at a crowded sales counter or in a rush at a very Jewish deli. Most astonishing of all: My father knew how to negotiate every corner of this strange land. He talked to just about everyone up and down the street; everyone knew him by name. He seemed to be speaking a foreign language, of karats and Baum & Merciers, herringbones and numbers. He knew every suite and booth in every building. I couldn’t have been more impressed if I had learned my dad had superpowers.”Postmen in the Mountains” is a world away from “Me and My Dad in the Diamond District.” “Postmen in the Mountains” takes place in the remote, verdant mountains of China’s eastern Hunan province. Instead of jewelry dealers, the film has postmen. And yet watching the movie took me back again and again to those days following my father’s footsteps around unfamiliar terrain, and finding there was a side of him – another dad, in effect – that I could not possibly have imagined had I not trailed him around 47th Street.In “Postmen in the Mountains,” a 1999 film directed by Jianqi Huo that was just released in the states this year, the 24-year-old son (played by Ye Liu) barely knows his father (Rujun Ten). For decades, the father has been only an occasional presence in the family’s small-town existence. He has been devoted to his postal route, a route that takes him, by foot, up mountains, across valleys, into tiny villages and remote farms.But the father has grown old and infirm with arthritis. So he has arranged to have his son assume his route, and the two – along with the father’s faithful companion, the German shepherd Laoer – embark on a three-day trip to introduce the son to the routine.But as the father teaches his son the ways of the postal route – everything from folding and packing the mail to conserving energy to making proper use of Laoer – what the son mostly comes to know is his father. As I saw an unknown side of my father in his business dealings, the son in “Postmen in the Mountains” begins to see a different man than he had imagined. The postal customers adore him for his devotion; to the blind woman to whom he reads, and even writes, letters, the father is practically family.The son is floored by his father’s intense humility: When he asks why his father has received no commendations, he responds that he refuses to deliver the letters of praise sent by his customers. When the son shoots a disbelieving look, the father asks simply, “Who has ever commended them?”We see why the father has handed his son the job, instead of aspiring for better things for his offspring. In the way the father has handled himself professionally, he has found dignity, satisfaction, even glory. And, perhaps most importantly, a sense of community service. “Postmen in the Mountains” – which is set in the early ’80s, before e-mail and cell phones probably eliminated the need for such an occupation – handles the relationship without schmaltz and overblown emotions. The revelations come slowly, steadily, subtly and believably. The development of the relationship, the character of the father and the opening of the son’s eyes to realities he had never envisioned are so rich and real that the gorgeous setting becomes a side character.”Postmen in the Mountains” shows tonight through Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House.