Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, 2011, directed by Andrea Segre) is set in Chioggia, a town near Venice, on the Venetian lagoon, but it's a film that doesn't seem Italian. Oh, don't get me wrong: it lives and breathes its setting. It positively luxuriates in it. It's a film with a sense of place so strong and so dense that it borders on the mythic, but for all that its characters are exiles bearing with them their own culture and experiences. Those cultures and experiences inform the mood of the entire film, which is one of longing and loneliness, of being a stranger in a strange land.
The story here follows Shun Li, a Chinese immigrant who is beholden to the human traffickers who have brought her to Italy. She works off the debt she owes for her transport as an indentured laborer, first in a garment sweatshop, then as a barista in a cafe in Chioggia. Shun Li is working not only for herself, but also in order to bring her son to Italy. Chioggia is a fishing village and the sea is ever present in the lives of the people who live there. One of the town's inhabitants is Bepi, who works as a fisherman, but fancies himself a poet. He, too, is an immigrant, having moved to Chiggia from Croatia thirty years before. He's an old man, but he has enough in common with Shun Li that they form a friendship. Unfortunately for both of them, they face the disapprobation of their respective communities: Bepi's friends begin to talk about him behind his back and begin to foment a distrust and paranoia about the Chinese. The Chinese to whom Shun Li owes her living, for their part, forbid friendships with Italians and order her to break off her friendship. Ultimately, the two are parted, but their lives remain entwined...
The thing that immediately struck me about Shun Li and the Poet while I was watching it was how lived-in it seems. This is a film with a rich texture of quotidian details, from the seagulls chasing the ships to the flow of work in the sweatshop to the casual way the locals ignore the overflowing canals when they flood. Director Andrea Segre cut his teeth as a documentary filmmaker, and that documentary eye is put to good use. His film seems real. Venice and its environs is one of the most-filmed cities in the world, but Segre manages to make it fresh and unfamiliar by putting it at something of a distance. Chioggia is like Venice in microcosm, a town of canals and cafes and water. So much water. This reminds me a bit of the paintings by the American Luminists, which attempted to capture on canvas the interplay of sky and water and light. It's easy to think that this film is realistic, so carefully observed are the details, but there's an element of melodrama in its central relationship that's peculiar to Italian filmmaking, There's a subtle element of mythmaking, too, incarnated in several shots of mountains in the distance where no mountains would ever be visible. We're seeing the world through Shun Li's eyes, and in her heart and mind, there are mountains. Or perhaps we're seeing the mountains of Croatia which are on the other side of the Adriatic. Or maybe they're on screen for poetic effect. They're not necessary, but I won't fault the indulgence.
This is a film of small pleasures. It derives its power from the naked humanity of its two central characters, whose loneliness is palpable and whose connection to each other is sweet and sad. The film is fortunate in its actors. Tao Zhao is a luminous presence as as Shun Li. Here longing for her son and the loneliness of her exile is written across the actress's face. Rade Serbedzija as Bepi has one of those deeply carved faces that's the landscape of a long, hard life, expressive and sad, and he spends large portions of the film smoking and drinking his cares away as he trudges through what remains of his life. Shun Li is a kind of redemption for him. She sees him as a poet, which is something he doesn't even see in himself. The love that grows between them, unlikely as it is, seems entirely natural, especially given the fact that it doesn't seem to have a sexual component. This is probably wise, because a sexual relationship might tilt the film even more heavily into melodrama. This doesn't stop the secondary characters from speculating about this, though, and it's part of the ugliness of humanity--its tendency to demonize the other--that ultimately tears Shun Li and Bepi apart. The secondary characters are types more than actual characters, but they are played by actors who inhabit those types effortlessly: the know-nothing bar thug, the paternalistically cruel human trafficker, the barfly lawyer. The exception to this is Lian (Wang Yuan), Shun Li's roommate. Lian is a character whose motives are deeply hidden, but whose actions are evocative. When we're first introduced to her, she set off my gaydar. Is she a queer character? Is she attracted to Shun Li? The movie is mum on this idea, but it explains somewhat her later actions. Lian is also repeatedly on screen in scenes having nothing to do with the central conflicts of the movie. The best of these show her doing tai chi on the beach, which are scenes of great beauty.
The film begins with Shun Li enacting a ceremony celebrating the Chinese poet Qu Yuan by floating candles in a bathtub. This is an image that plays out again throughout the movie, with Bepi floating a candle on the flooded floor of the cafe, with Bepi walking by a candle on the canal which signals that even though she's forbidden to befriend him, Shun Li still loves him, and with the inferno of Bepi's burning fishing shack, its light painting dancing off Shun Li's face in the same way the candles in the bathtub did. There's a strong attachment to poetry in this film, but the poetry it finds isn't necessarily verbal. Bepi's poems are generally doggerel when he says any of it aloud. The poem he gives to Shun Li is not, though. There is a locus of poetry in how people love and how people live in this movie that pushes this film out of the realm of melodrama and out of the realm of kitchen sink realism into something approaching the sublime.