Andrea Segre’s Shun Li And The Poet is a tender tale of friendship between a Chinese immigrant and a Venetian fisherman-cum-poet.
From Across the Waves by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After a decade of exploring migration in Italy, and in the Veneto in particular, Andrea Segre’s latest film Shun Li and the Poet focuses on an unlikely friendship between Chinese immigrant Shun Li and local fisherman Bepi. The film’s original Italian title is Io Sono Li, a play on words meaning both I Am Li and I Am There, a reference to the themes of cross cultural identity and belonging featured throughout the film.
Shun Li (Zhao Tao) starts out in Rome, sewing in a sweatshop in one of the eternal city’s faceless apartment-block suburbs, alongside hundreds of other Chinese workers. She is unexpectedly called in by her boss one day and told she is to be transferred north in just two weeks’ time. She will be working as a waitress in the town of Chioggia, outside Venice. She has no choice in the matter and is sent off like a commodity. We see her travelling alone up the spine of Italy, as classic landscapes speed by through the coach windows. She arrives on the banks of the shimmering lagoon at sunset.
Once in Chioggia she is given a room sharing with another worker. She will not be waitressing in the Chinese restaurant as expected, but tending bar at a local fisherman’s osteria. She is quickly shown the ropes and attempts to pick up some of the regulars’ idiosyncratic orders. The role of Shun Li is played delicately and beautifully by Zhao Tao, who won the David di Donatello award for Best Actress for her bilingual role. Despite their initial reticence, the regulars begin to warm to Shun Li and vice versa. One day she prepares Chinese-style locally caught prawns for them, to a curious yet mixed reception. She works hard; it transpires that she is earning the money to pay for her 8-year-old son to join her in Italy. She asks for a half-day off to buy him a birthday present to send back to China, but her request is met with stern refusal.
Little by little, she becomes close to one of the bar’s regulars: Bepi. Also an immigrant, Bepi grew up in Yugoslavia, but has been in Italy for 30 years. Having recently lost his wife, he spends his time fishing from his hut over the lagoon, composing poetry, and countering his son’s insistence that he leave his tiny apartment in Chioggia to live with his son and young family in more urban Mestre. One evening Shun Li and Bepi get to talking as she is closing up the bar. She tells him about her son and shows him photographs of home. He tells her about his own family and growing up back in Yugoslavia. Although very different, their experiences as immigrants unite them through a common understanding of the difficulties of being accepted as an outsider in modern-day Italy.
Shun Li and her roommate have a rare day off. While her friend spends the day doing tai chi on the beach, Shun Li travels into Venice to marvel at the beauty of the Grand Canal. In the afternoon, she joins Bepi at his fisherman’s hut, idyllically suspended on stilts over the bewitching lagoon, with the snow-covered peaks of the Dolomites in the distance. The big skies and endless seas hint at the distances they have both travelled.
As their friendship develops, they become the butt of gossip from both communities. The Chinese community don’t want Shun Li to give Chinese workers a bad name and risk destabilising their position in the small town. Bepi’s friends are concerned that Shun Li has an ulterior motive and is using him for his supposed inheritance. Ignorant racist clichés about a Chinese invasion and “taking over” are trotted out in echoes of the discourse currently being heard in many European countries. Eventually the situation comes to an angry head and Shun Li and Bepi are forced apart. Shun Li is transferred to a job back in the clothing industry and continues working hard with dreams of being reunited with her son.
As Shun Li’s dreams finally come true thanks to the intervention of a friend, her thoughts return to Bepi and she makes a visit back to Chioggia that sadly comes all too late. A skilfully acted, subtle film, Shun Li And The Poet succeeds in giving a human face to immigration and the sacrifices made by foreign workers across Europe in the hope of giving their families a better life. Faced with a cultural divide, Shun Li and Bepi’s fates are different, yet their story is a captivating one.
Shun Li And The Poet is released on 21st June 2013 in the UK