The Postman Strikes Back (Xun cheng ma)

Hong Kong (1982) Dir. Ronny Yu

I might as well tell you now, the titular postman isn’t your average Royal Mail worker seeking revenge against the noisy terrier at No. 27 that has a habit of jumping up at the door every time he makes a delivery. Nor does this guy sneak around leaving “Sorry you were out” cards despite his adversaries definitely being in at the time.

No, this postman is humble courier Ma (Leung Kar Yan) in 1913 Republic of China, a nation undergoing a huge change towards the modernity already embraced by the western world. Through an acquaintance Yao Jie (Yat Chor Yuen), Ma is approached by enigmatic stranger Hu (Eddy Ko Hung) to deliver some boxes of undisclosed content across the country, with strict instructions not to open them.

Because of the cargo’s importance, Ma and Yao Je are joined by explosives expert Bu (Fan Mei-Sheng), and con man Fu Jun (Chow Yun-Fat) to ensure delivery. The quartet soon grows to a sextet when they pick up village girl Gui-Hua (Cherie Chung) and lone female traveller Li Fu (Guk Ching-Suk). Whatever is in the boxes is of great interest to a number of people as the group regularly discover.

Having made his name in both Hong Kong and Hollywood, The Postman Strikes Back is an early directorial effort for Ronny Yu and is arguably most notable for the presence of Chow Yun Fat playing a character that is something of a presage of his breakout role in A Better Tomorrow just a few years later.

Similarly, but perhaps not intentional, there is a mirroring of the cultural transitions of the film’s period setting in that there is a palpable nod to the 1970’s style of Hong Kong martial arts movies with a younger modern 1980’s cast. In other words, it bridges the traditional style of Shaw Brothers films with the progressive ideas being introduced by the likes of  Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.

A look at the production credits shows the legendary Yuen Clan are involved which may explain this generation clash between their old style sensibilities (which they would help to adapt to modern times) of their family’s legacy and director Ronny Yu. Surprisingly Yuen Woo-Ping acts as a supervisor, leaving it to brothers Brandy and Sunny to handle the action choreography, the latter also playing a villain.

The story is a little half-hearted but that is par for the course for the martial arts genre but Ronny Yu and his five(!) co-writers at least throw in some last minutes twists ahead of the (literal) explosive finale. The downside though is that none of this is ever properly explained, not helped by the numerous attackers appearing from out of the blue purely because of the cargo Ma is carrying.

Con man Fu Jun is pursued by two fighters seeing vengeance of a colleague they believe he killed after duping him so at least he has a reason to be wary, and in true fashion it is dealt with via physical means. Fu has a homemade dart gun attached to his wrist which comes in handy when his to opponents confront him using a unique “piggy back” style of fighting that needs to be seen to be believed.

An underplayed subplot, which given time would have added some much needed urgency to the ragtag group dynamic, is the issue of trust since Ma is unfamiliar with some of his partners, not to mention wary of Hu and with good reason too. Yao Jie is a petty thief also adept at attracting trouble; in fact the only person Ma seems to be able to trust is Bu, which is handy since he is one with the explosives.

For the two women, Gui-Hua is heading to Shanghai to buy back her 15 year-old sister (sold by her father) and fulfils the eye candy damsel in distress role. Li Fu on the other hand is more mysterious, having once already stolen the packages but was caught by some bandits who Ma and co fought off. Why did she do this? Good question – they never asked her!

Eventually all is revealed, introducing the real villain of the story, a real nasty piece of work who enjoys killing the innocent for laughs. This galvanises Ma’s sense of justice but his ultimate opponent is the ninja that has been following him around, a skinny chap with an entire arsenal of tricks somehow secreted about his tight fitting body suit! Words can’t do this justice but I don’t think this film was intended to be a comedy. Good fight though!

It is this sort of camp content, which also includes ice skating assassins and exploding rats, which undermines the serious tone of the conclusion illustrating concerns that modernising may be good but it also can be dangerous. Maybe it is just as well that Jackie Chan was able to revitalise the martial arts genre by approaching this with a sense of humour.

The DVD artwork has the young and very skinny Chow Yun Fat all over it yet he is just one part of what is essentially an ensemble cast, although he does steal the show from the overly serious Leung Kar Yan, whose role is basically to kick butt. Ronny Yu’s direction has yet to show any real major creative flourishes but is adequate enough, hampered by the erratic plotting and equally shoddy editing. At least the fights are fun.

Like the country it portrays, the martial arts genre and Hong Kong cinema in general was in a transitional period and this film demonstrates that, having been put in the awkward position of being too old school for younger audiences and too modern for those with more traditional tastes.

Viewed today The Postman Strikes Back comes across as a vintage curiosity rather than a bone fide classic, justifying the Chow Yun Fat promotional focus to make it an easy sell in the wake of his subsequent international success.