Italian documentarian Andrea Segre’s debut feature about the exploitation of immigrant workers in his native country, Shun Li and the Poet (2011), packs an undeniably powerful punch. A young, unmarried Chinese woman, Shun Li (Tao Zhao), is in debt to the men who arranged and paid for her travel to Rome. Li is effectively enslaved; she works for free, lives in cramped quarters and endures long hours in a textile factory while waiting for the news that will reunite her with her eight-year-old son. Things begin to look up for Li when she is sent to work in a bar on Chioggia, a small island situated in the Veneto lagoon.
Li is quickly befriended by one of the bar regulars, Bepi (Rade Serbedzija), a Yugoslavian fisherman nicknamed ‘The Poet’ because of his love of rhyme. Bepi has recently lost his wife and is about to retire. Yet, despite having lived and worked in the port for thirty years, Bepi is still considered an outsider and can identify with Li’s feelings of isolation. Their exchanges are brief but intense. They share stories of fishing and Li tells Bepi about the festival of the Chinese poet Qu Yuan that she celebrates every year by floating candle-lit paper lanterns on water. However, everyone knows each other in Choggia, and like any small town, tempers quickly fray and resentments begin fester about the pair’s growing mutual affection.
The local community begin to gossip about the pair, stirring up xenophobic fears which threaten the business interests of Li’s Chinese employers. They give her an ultimatum – she must give up her relationship with Bepi or her son’s arrival will be delayed. Segre deliberately steers clear of picture postcard images of Italy and instead there is a raw, documentary feel to his inaugural narrative feature. The drab and oppressive tenements of Rome are contrasted with the stark wonder of Chioggia, where the rain floods the canals and eventually seeps into the buildings.
Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi (The Great Beauty) subtly conveys Li’s sense of imprisonment with shots of her trapped behind the glass window of a bus, reflected in the bar’s mirror or looking through the iron grill of a window. It is only when Li travels out to sea in Bepi’s boat that she experiences true release, suggested through Bigazzi’s use of colour and lighting. Shun Li and the Poet explores the emotional fallout of displacement, the ties of home, and how unexpected acts of kindness alleviate loneliness. The two leads prove quietly compelling and Segre’s epic themes resonates long after the final credits roll.