Our Film Review:
In a quiet and unassuming fiction feature from documentary filmmaker Andrea Segre comes a touching and subtle story of outcasts coming together. Having covered the topic of immigration in his previous work, the writer-director follows up with Shun Li and the Poet, a tender drama about two strangers linked by their status as immigrants.
Narratively, Shun Li and the Poet is as sparse as the lagoon in which it is set. Shun Li (Zhao Tao) is a thirty-something single mother working in Italy to pay off the debts that got her to the country, as well as saving enough to bring her eight year old son over from China. When she moves to the small community of Chioggia to work behind a bar, Shun Li meets Bepi (played by the recognisable Rade Sherbedgia), a regular at the café. Having moved from Yugoslavia several years previously, Bepi understands Shun Li as a fellow immigrant, and a friendship slowly builds between the solitary fisherman and the gentle barmaid. However, their relationship threatens the calm of Chioggia, as resentments emerge within the tight-knit community towards the immigration of so many foreign workers.
It’s not difficult to see why a filmmaker such as Segre would be responsible for a film like this. Bringing in issues of cultural difference and alienation is not surprising, but the understated friendship between the two leads is similar to that of the film’s tone. Instead of harshly summerising the social realism of the status of immigrants, Segre instead is more interested in the subtle, day-to-day difficulties that his characters must face. Having moved to Chioggia thirty years ago, Bepi is mostly accepted as a part of the community, but still with some knowledge of his position as an outsider. Living alone after the death of his wife a year previously, Bepi sees a commonality between himself and Shun Li, and it is this bond that the film prioritises. Segre’s background as a documentary filmmaker is clear, with striking natural imagery and calmly observational direction granting the film a clear sense of location. The issues of immigration and xenophobia are made apparent without forcing the point, serving to show instead of tell.
The two leads are well suited to this restrained narrative, particularly Zhao Tao, who exudes the serene dignity needed for such a quiet performance. Rade Sherbedgia may not be a familiar name, but his recognisably weathered and wise features are well placed to convey the empathy and experience needed for the role. Whilst the friendship is meant to be only platonic in nature, the doting nature of Bepi occasionally falls close to something more inappropriate, but this can be forgiven for the otherwise well pitched performances of the two leads.
Whilst it can be said that often the performances in a film go a long way towards its success, Shun Li and the Poet has beautiful cinematography to fall back on. Luca Bigazzi’s work mirrors perfectly the poetry of Shun Li’s voiceover, using wide shots of the calm lagoon and foggy atmosphere to match the film’s appearance with the stillness of its tone. The delicate soundtrack melds unnoticed with the dramatic shifts in the narrative, which aside from a few moments of melodrama remains constant throughout.
It could be argued that with such an unassuming and calm atmosphere, the film perhaps fails to work for the attention it seeks, however with such an enchanting air and touching narrative, Shun Li and the Poet will nonetheless resonate long after viewing.