Shun Li and the Poet

Andrea Segre
Release Year:
Andrea Segre, Marco Pettenello
Tao Zhao, Rade Serbedzija
Tao Zhao received the best actress prize at Italy's 2012 David di Donatello Awards.
Screening Date:
  • 17 Jan 2017
  • Categories:

    Set on an island fishing village named Chioggia in the Venice lagoon; this is a study of the friendship, through poetry, between a recently arrived Chinese woman and a widowed Yugoslavian fisherman.

    Film Notes

    In the lagoon of Venice, remote from the city's famous charms, is an island fishing village named Chioggia. Here, since time immemorial, fisherman set out to feed the city's hunger for scampi and the other creatures trapped in their nets. It is a small community, and many of the regulars hang out at the same taverna. One of these is Bepi, played by the Croatian actor Rade Sherbedgia. You may not recall the name but you will remember the face: 60-ish, weathered, wise. He plays a man facing retirement, who lost his wife a year ago, and is a solitary soul. The bar is owned by Chinese, and one day, a new bartender appears. This is Shun Li (Tao Zhao), in her 30s, divorced, working to pay back the people who paid to bring her from China and to pay for a ticket so her 8-year-old son can join her. The customers, like all the regulars in small provincial places, know each other well and don't fail to observe a thing. When a subtle, unstated friendship begins to form between Shun Li and Bepi, they do not approve. They feel somehow threatened, as if this relationship will disturb the fixed pattern of their days. Shun Li and Bepi do not feel passion in the ordinary sense. They have found kindred souls and are linked by their regard for poetry. Bepi's nickname is “Poet,” and Shun Li tells him of China's greatest poet, Qu Yuan, whose birthday is observed every year by floating candles on water. Bepi is from the former Yugoslavia, and even after 30 years in Venice he's still something of an outsider. Both are lonely, and romantics at heart. We learn something of the system that brought Shun Li to Italy, first to a factory in Rome, and now to Chioggia. She essentially works for free to pay off her debt and lives with Lian, another Chinese woman. It is forbidden for her to fraternize with the locals, and when word of her new friendship gets back, as it is sure to do, she is told to have nothing more to do with Bepi. For her this is inarguable; her life centers on being reunited with her son. Venice is the most photogenic city in the world, but we don't see the familiar Venice. Shun Li approaches it by bus across a causeway and sees it as a distant skyline. Yet Chioggia has its own charms, its old stones, its passages between houses, its bridges, its docks, and the small fisherman's huts in the lagoon; Bepe shows this to her. Without ever once kissing, Shun Li tells him she wants to marry him, and he replies, “I know that.” It would not be a marriage of convenience; to prevent just such an event, it is forbidden for a foreigner to pay off a worker's debt. And Bepi's fellow drinkers in the bar — including one ugly-mannered bully — begin to exhibit a xenophobic hatred for the Chinese, who will colonize the world, etc. What this all leads to you will discover. Sometimes proper casting does much of the work in a film. For writer-director Andrea Segre, that's the case here. Tao Zhao couldn't speak Italian when she came to make the movie, and that fits the story. Rade Serbedgia as a workingman near the end of a long life, walks steadily across the village's waterfront, wearily smoking as if that's a task he has been set. There is not much happiness in the lives of these two people, but they have each other.
    Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times October 31, 2012
    Italian documentary-maker Andrea Segre’s impressive first drama finds a fresh angle on the travails of dispossessed immigrants. It charts the bond between a hardworking Chinese bartender in Venice who’s in hock to the triads and one of her regulars, a grizzly expat from former Yugoslavia. The storyline is not unfamiliar, as single mother Shun Li finds herself trapped by circumstances and longing to be reunited with her son, while ‘the poet’, a codger-ish fisherman with a penchant for off-the-cuff couplets, finds common ground in her insistence on sustaining cultural links with her homeland. The little conflict there is arises from the bristling prejudices of his boozy pals, but it’s the sense of place which knits it all together. Segre’s film captures the misty elision of land and sea in the Veneto lagoon and how it perfectly expresses the characters’ yearning placelessness. The mood is so potent, we can’t help but share something of their need to belong.
    TREVOR JOHNSTON, Time Out, JUNE 17 2013
    When you hear that Shun Li and the Poet concerns the experiences of a Chinese immigrant in contemporary Italy, you will almost certainly prepare yourself for a litany of atrocities. Relax. Andrea Segre’s elegant film does dally with quiet tragedies and small cruelties, but nobody gets raped, decapitated or sold into sex slavery. Rather, it’s a touching fable of the old school. François Couturier, the gifted French jazz composer, layers the piece with melodic piano tinkles and plaintiff surges on the accordion. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, who has done such good work with Paolo Sorrentino, paints the Adriatic seascapes in soothing watercolours. You would have to be a very mean person indeed to dislike the film. Zhao Tao, frequent collaborator with Jia Zhangke, plays Shun Li, a young Chinese woman working long hours in an Italian clothing factory. In the opening scene, her boss tells her that she must move to a fishing port near Venice and serve in a dockside cafe. Desperate to pay her debts, she accepts and finds herself adrift in a community apparently conceived by a less surreally minded Aki Kaurismaki. Gentle old men gather in the afternoon to drink laced coffee and discus old campaigns. A useless young hoodlum argues with his extravagantly hair-sprayed romantic partner. Eventually, Shun Li makes friends with an elderly Yugoslavian fisherman named Bepi (the reliably brilliant Rade Serbedzija). They take trips out to his fishing shack. He reads her his rough poetry. She discusses her family. But the relationship, never exactly romantic, displeases both the locals and Li’s Chinese masters. As the film drifts towards a sad but satisfactory conclusion, it occasionally flirts with mawkishness. But Segre, hitherto known for his documentaries, always pulls back before the slide is complete. We are left with a largely sincere study of loneliness and its consolations. Unlike so many films on this subject, Shun Li and the Poet actually believes in the inherent decency of strangers. Don’t hold that against it.
    Donald Clarke, The Irish Times, Jun 21, 2013

    What you thought about Shun Li and the Poet

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    55 (69%) 21 (26%) 4 (5%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 80
    Film Score (0-5): 4.64

    Collated Response Comments

    Shun Li and the Poet had you reaching for a dictionary of superlatives to describe this “profound, understated film of the season, so far” which was “beautifully acted and very moving”. More praise came for the “amazing acting” with “the photography creating a melancholic mood”. These elements coupled with the “great soundtrack” delivered “a beautiful slow film which portrayed how outsiders are perceived – Toa Zhao deserved the award she won”. Many of you described this as “a tender film” and “a sensitive, if low key portrayal of social injustice in the Globalised world, filmed against the beautiful, if appropriately bleak backdrop of the Venice lagoon”. More praise for the film’s look and direction came with “the photography showing the reflections was exquisite”; and the portrayal of “beautiful mysterious Venice” giving “a different side to the touristy part… really made a strong impact on the story”. Also noteworthy were “great direction” which delivered a “moving story beautiful photographed”. “So beautiful. Having tried to make links – I then realised I needed to just listen with my heart, not my head and my heart”...“Really enjoyed this – beautiful imagery and music”. “Full of insight”. “Beautiful story well told and magnificently shot”. “It shows the decency and indecency of man. Points out the terrible time immigrants face. Maybe May and Gove should watch it”. “Bitter sweet story of trafficking – with an ending that gives one hope for finding goodness in some people. Great visually and the music was spot on”. “A lovely film – not afraid to take a slow burn. Lyrical and very enjoyable”. “Exquisite and charming. She acted beautifully with innocence. Very well directed”. The majority view is best summed up with “Oscars all round. A real treat. Incredible acting and beautifully filmed. More of the same please”. Another member said that this was “worth the sub for that film alone” and another commented, “excellent film. Thank you”. “Heaven sent in every way. Thanks committee”. The short film was considered also with “interesting but not arresting” and “who knew you could get so attached to a light bulb. Totally charming”. “Loved the short too”. And for the member who asked “Can we have some French crime films – they are a class of their own”, you may go on to the website and make recommendations for the committee to consider for next season.

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