The grief burns, blazes through their chests and sears their lungs frozen. Everything is cold, and distant, and gray. They don’t know what else to do, so they write letters. They take a bus out to the countryside, to a quiet field where the only sound is the tall grass rustling in the wind and against their clothing. There, in the center, is a worn red mailbox. They place their letters inside, turn around, and begin the journey back to the city. The setting sun, they cool grass, and most of all, the peeling paint on the mail box: all are soothing; they begin to feel a little better. They’ve just sent a letter to their loved ones in heaven.
Heaven’s Postman is the product of the 2009 “Telecinema” project, a joint South Korean-Japanese venture to create a series of films that would run both in theaters and on television. I’m cheating a bit making it part of my “Exploring Korean Drama” series; I’m not going to toss all Korean movies I watch under this heading. But the version of Postman I saw was made and set in South Korea, aired on television, is a romance, and is available on Hulu with all the other Korean drama, so I’m counting it as that.
Jo Ha Na is struggling to move past her grief. After her boyfriend’s death she learns he was actually married with a child, and her sorrow and anger have rolled up into a tight knot in her stomach that won’t ease. She storms to the box to mail him a letter: one filled with all the vitriol she needs to unleash on him but can’t. There, at the box, she meets Shin Jae Joon.
Jae Joon tells her he’s never read such angry letters before. Most people come to the box to work through their grief; their letters are full of the longing and love they have nowhere to put but on paper. Jae Joon is heaven’s postman: he takes the letters, and maybe he delivers them, but what he also does is read them. He finds the ones whose authors have the most unfinished business with their recipients, and does what he can to bring them a measure of peace. Jae Joon offers Ha Na a job.
Ha Na and Jae Joon seek out those who have left letters in the mail box. They find an elderly man writing to his passed wife; he’s worried that their son might not actually be his. They forge a positive DNA test and deliver it to him. A woman leaves beautiful lunch boxes for her deceased child; they eat the contents, which would spoil otherwise, and return the box with a flower placed on top.
Ha Na worries that they’re lying to people. Jae Joon tells her that people can’t receive replies from heaven. Those who come to the mail box need help, and Jae Joon’s the one appointed to give it. Ha Na accepts, not just because she needs comfort herself, but because there’s something otherworldly about Jae Joon. He seems like something more, like he’s not just a strange guy who began sorting through the private letters left in a sacred red box. Jae Joon and Ha Na are soothing pain, and in so doing Ha Na feels her own beginning to quiet.
As her pain fades, so does Jae Joon. Ha Na has been thinking about her boyfriend less, and about her new life, and Jae Joon, more. She’s happier, now, until one day it gets harder to see Jae Joon. He flickers in and out of reality.
Only people who miss a deceased loved one can see him, Jae Joon explains. The less they think about that person, the harder of a time they have seeing him. Until one day, their constant thoughts of that person cease, and Jae Joon disappears from their sight forever.
The lessening of Ha Na’s grief dooms her growing relationship with Jae Joon. The knife-twist is that once Jae Joon disappears, he’ll be even more alone than her. Ha Na is the first human connection he made in a long time. Once he fades from her sight he’ll go back to moving, silent, through a crowd. He’ll only be seen, only be able to to interact with the world in as mundane matters as ordering coffee, from those with sorrow draped thick around them. There’s nothing Jae Joon or Ha Na can do to prevent that.
Heaven’s Postman is a quiet, ponderous dream of a film. It’s made for frosty Sunday mornings, when the sky is first lit with pale pink, or for the honey-slow descent of the sun on crisp autumnal afternoons. It feels like the warm, rich undertones to the season’s first chill or thaw. It’s not boring or slow: it’s like a held breath or a sweet thought. It’s a daydream for escaping into, one that doesn’t rush, but that pauses to luxuriate in churning waves, the sound of wind in the grass, of the fading sun slowly warming the skin.
The cinematography, set design, and locations are what make the film the reverie that it is. They’re what really sell the magical realism: if each shot wasn’t a revel in its surroundings, blurring the delicate edges of reality and fantasy, we wouldn’t feel as invested or believe in the events taking place. As it is we’re swept away, but it’s the gentle glide of a meadow stream, not a crashing or turbulent wave.
As such, the film nudges at certain ideas: at whether lying can ever be acceptable, if it’s for the greater good. But in the end, it’s not sure. The comfort our leads bring to the grieving is invaluable, but Jae Joon will lose his job, will “no longer be wanted,” in his own words, if he’s ever caught. The concept just isn’t explored that much; the movie isn’t interested in making grand statements, or even fleshing out the most vivid, vivacious of characters. Our leads could each, respectively, be accused of aligning with stereotypes: of the withdrawn, almost aloof guy, and of a manic pixie-ish girl.
But neither feels quite accurate; the movie is about the both of them, its point of view omniscient. Both Ha Na and Jae Joon really start living again as a result of their interactions, but for Jae Joon in particular that’s not all. The work of delivering messages from heaven is the true journey for both of them; meeting each other is a part of that, but not the whole.
The movie is all a bit detached, isn’t trying to do anything that new or original with its characters or its ending. But that doesn’t matter. The movie just wants to suggest that caring for or looking after others is one of life’s truest goals. It wants to give viewers the feel of a beautiful dream. At the happy end, we wake up. The ethereal feeling is preserved; we carry it around with us all day, just like when we have a gorgeous, fragile dream.