Chinese orphan Mei-Mei and her Australian sponsor, Dean Randall, have communicated throughout postcards for years. When Mei-Mei visits Australia with the children's choir she helps direct, she discovers the truth about her sponsor and even more about herself.
Orphan Mei-Mei (Zhu Lin) thinks she's found the opportunity of a lifetime when she travels to Sydney for a concert with the children's choir from her orphanage. For Mei-Mei, Australia is more than just a foreign country that offers a chance to see something new and learn a little about the wider world. It's also the home of her long-time sponsor, Dean Randall (Guy Pearce). Though Mei-Mei and Dean have never met, they've exchanged dozens of postcards and letters over the course of a decade. Mei-Mei writes to Mr. Randall and tells him that she's eager to see him while visiting from China.
But Mr. Randall doesn't write back. Mei-Mei and her schoolmates arrive in Sydney, excited by the sights of the exotic city. Despite the joy of traveling with the children, Mei-Mei is eager to find Mr. Randall even if Miss Chen (Elaine Jin) expressly forbids her from leaving the hotel to find him. The 16-year-old girl's journey to find her sponsor—and the truth about him—will forever alter the lives of the pair. By contrasting the postcards that Dean Randall wrote Mei-Mei with his actual life, we come to see something about how we construct ourselves in text and how powerfully we dream to be something other than ourselves. While director Pauline Chan's 33 Postcards is predictable at times, it's still a worthwhile movie and great coming-of-age tale.
Mei-Mei's journey to find and understand Mr. Randall is fraught with danger. She befriends young Carl (Lincoln Lewis), who we find likable but not entirely trustworthy. The young orphan doesn't realize that Carl is collecting protection money when she first meets him, nor does she realize that his father runs a car theft ring and chop shop. So much gets lost in translation for Mei-Mei as she makes new friends that it's hard not to sympathize with her all the more. As the movie progresses, action and suspense sequences are blended with the typical coming-of-age fair to interesting effect. The meeting of the two genres helps to broaden the film's audience while updating plotlines that might seem stale otherwise.
An excellent supporting cast lends 33 Postcards the extra push it needs to become a truly enjoyable film. Barbara (Claudia Karvan) and Tommy (Matt Nable) stand out in particular as characters bent on either building up or destroying Dean and, by extension, Mei-Mei. The deep affections that Mei-Mei awakens through these relationships reveal something rather lovely about the innocence of unspoiled youth. Yet despite her innocence, we also come to respect the young woman's sophisticated understanding of the world around her. It's proof that knowledge needn't be paired with corruption. By combining thriller-style suspense with the vulnerabilities and desires of young Mei-Mei, the director manages to create a strong emotional atmosphere that will strike a chord with many viewers. Keep tissues on hand for this one.
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33 Postcards opens in select markets on Friday, May 17, and is available on demand on Vudu and the iTunes store.