Post Office

By Courtney Loo and David Karp | Drama
A Chinese-American mother tries to help an abandoned girl. But there are consequences.

Frances is a Chinese-American mother running errands one afternoon with her two young children, on their way to her son's soccer game. After a few mishaps, they seem finally on their way.

But then they spot a little Chinese girl alone on the side of the road. Frances pulls over to check on her, but the little girl speaks no English. Frances herself doesn't speak Chinese, so she calls the police to help -- only to bring about a small tragedy for nearly all involved.

Directed by Courtney Loo and David Karp from a script written by Loo, this quietly devastating short drama has a narrative studded with many contemporary issues. But the storytelling weaves these into its chain of events in subtle and uncanny ways, imbuing tension and uneasiness into what emerges as a profound meditation on a deeper identity crisis.

The foundation of the film rests on the sharp intelligence of both its writing and its direction. It is, initially, a narrative of moments and details. With a calm, observational camera and discerning editing, viewers catch several poetic details: the Chinese flag carefully being ironed by Frances in preparation for their school's "Multicultural Day" or the blond hair on the Snapchat filter on her daughter's phone, for instance. The film's language is poetic, attuned to how the small details of our lives and surroundings say so much about how we think and feel about ourselves. We get a picture of a middle-class family in America, integrating their cultural heritage with their modern American lives, and actor Julie Zhan plays Frances as a typical loving but sometimes distracted mother juggling the many demands of raising young children.

But when Frances has to stop and dart inside somewhere to deal with a spilled coffee, she leaves her two children in the car for a moment. When a car with two strange men pulls up next to them, there's a frisson of danger. We fear what the two men may do, but we also wonder if Frances will get in trouble for leaving her children in the car. Luckily for Frances, nothing happens.

But the tension is not easy to shake, even when we segue into a scene of the small family singing together in the car. But that joy comes to a halt when they spot a little girl by a highway. From here, the action plays out with the more compressed rhythms of a more conventional drama, though it is no less compelling in its deft build-up of suspense and stakes. From moment to moment, with each added narrative element and reveal, we see issues of police authority, "Karens" and immigration unfurl in a heart-wrenching way.

Though it weaves in topical issues, "Post Office" is not "about" these topics. Instead, the great tragedy is that a family can't be understood by someone who looks like them but doesn't speak their language. One mother inadvertently betrays another, Frances watching as the unknown woman pays the price for something she herself has done. Afterward, Frances reflects on her failure, and all the careful, poetic details and strangely tense moments coalesce into a powerful questioning of identity, assimilation and what is gained and lost as one generation to the next becomes rooted in America. It becomes a powerful illumination into the peculiar calculus that is often Asian-American identity, and how the balancing act of fitting in can go awry.

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