Averting his gaze from the picturesque yet familiar refinement of Venice, Italian director Andrea Segre has discovered a more subtle beauty in the neighbouring fishing village of Chioggia. After several years spent as a documentary filmmaker, the Italian has now turned his hand to narrative features with serenely paced debut Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, 2011). With the ever-present lagoon serving as a tonal touchstone, themes of immigration, prejudice and loneliness are deftly navigated by Segre and his impressive cast, whilst great care is also taken to steer clear of the grittier course a film such as this might typically follow.
Rather than tackling broader social issues head on, Segre’s atmospheric tale focuses on the minutiae of a burgeoning relationship between two outsiders, Li (Tao Zhao) and Bepi (Rade Serbedzija). Li arrives in Chioggia at the behest of her employers to whom she is effectively indentured. That is until she has cleared the debt she owes for bringing her over to Europe from China, at which point they have promised to provide passage for the young son she had to leave behind. Her new position is tending bar at a waterside taverna frequented by time-worn fisherman; amongst them a composer of crude couplets, the Slavic Bepi, jovially nicknamed ‘Poet’ by his peers. It’s not a romantic entanglement that ensues, but a touching friendship.
Zhao and Sebedzija both excel in the quiet moments through which they get to know each other – as they bond over a love of poetry. The locals, however, are unimpressed by the immigrant barmaid that they see as duping and seducing one of their own. Pressure soon increases for them to put an end to their closeness coming both from the other fishermen and Li’s disapproving superiors. Luca Bigazzi’s beautiful cinematography gracefully complements the understated nature of the story, painting a perfect portrait of this modest village. As Li and Bepi meander through the waterlogged locale, the lack of any real joy outside of one another becomes quite pronounced.
Shun Li and the Poet may feel somewhat slight to some audiences, and a more explicit conflict might have served it well. There is the odd story element that would have benefited from a little more development, but these problems are minor and can easily be forgiven. Segre’s choice to tell a very personal story, and largely lap at the edges of the issues involved, makes for a wonderfully emotive voyage that works so well precisely because the current was not too strong.