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It’s not hard to convince us to see  a movie filmed in Italy, or by or about its people.  Even so, we had a nice surprise last night on our big-screen streaming video device.  Shun Li and the Poet(2011,) by Andrea Segre, in his first non-documentary effort, was a quiet surprise about big things  — immigration, foreignness, fear, racism, friendship, separation, motherhood … and even, poetry. 

Movie Shun LiWe get a glimpse into the all but unknown world of immigrant Chinese workers in Rome and Chiogga, Italy (16 mi SSW of Venice, on the same lagoon,) and the trying circumstances of their bondage to the contractors who bring them there.  In a working man’s bar along the Chiogga waterfront we meet a handful of grizzled fishermen, one who celebrates his retirement after 35 years of hauling nets, and another, Bepe, The Poet, [Rade Serbedzija]  a long time immigrant himself, from Yugoslavia.

Li Shun [Tao Zhao] is shifted from assembly line sewing to bartending by her keepers — to be kept working for an indeterminate time until she earns enough to bring her 8 year old son from China.  The slow growth of affection between her and Bepe is the heart of the story, a heart that is broken by what life brings, but a heart mended as well. 

The fishermen’s curiosity about what the friendship means brings a mix of prurience and threat that strike us as quite right, no matter the setting or ethnicities involved.  The supporting characters give us a sense of the ‘neighborhood.’  The one bully [Giuseppe Battiston] is perhaps slightly overdrawn but his on-and-off affection for his own small son keeps him from being a caricature.  Shun Li’s room-mate and possible ‘angel’ [Wang Yuan]is more mysterious than she need be, but doesn’t make improbable her contribution. The merging of the story of the poet  Qu Yuan (4th Century BCE), who is ‘protected’ by floating candles during the annual Dragon Boat festival and Bepe’s wish to be something more than a worn-out fisherman, far from home, is quite wonderful.

 The fishermen’s dialect is noticeable but not too obscure; modest abilities will let you follow along, though the subtitles are just fine.  The scenes of the Venetian lagoon with its well known fog and sidewalk lapping intrusions are evocative, atmospheric and metaphoric at the same time.   As Shun Li looks out over the waters at movie’s end, we feel with her the sadness of life passing, of perhaps not doing the right thing, but with days and years to come to be otherwise, a good mother and friend.

Segre is credited with the story and script as well as directing and shows a nice imagination rooted in everyday particulars.  He has assembled a first rate cast.  The two leads have impressive resumes and even the secondary characters have appeared in well known films such as Bread and Tulips.  His second film (non documentary) First Snowfall (2013) is not available yet, but I’d bet on it — another story about immigrants (Libyan) and Italians.


From Qu Yuan’s “The Far-Off Journey”, translator unattributed

Saddened by the hardships of the common world,
How I wish to rise up and travel ways far-off!
My own strength is feeble; there is no support —

What could I stride on to float up and away?