'The question is: how to give human life its historical importance at every minute.' Cesare Zavattini (writer of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D)
Shun Li and the Poet is a 'small', ordinary, everyday story about people trying to connect with each other and with their surroundings. It's also one of the most arrestingly charming films the Italian film industry has produced in the last ten years.
Evoking the spirit of Neorealism, this film captures something about contemporary life by the Venetian lagoon (it is set in Chioggia, a coastal town 25 km south of Venice with a strong local tradition) through its attention to mundane details and the precision taken in depicting a place obviously close to the director's heart. It is not coincidence that the film-maker in question, Andrea Segre, has a background in documentary-making and sociology; he is also a 'local boy', and clearly knows his milieu inside out. This is not the Italy of postcards, of BBC food programmes: Chioggia looks misty, earthy, desolate. Its streets, even its pubs, get flooded. Its inhabitants are stoic, non-nonsense people who have an ambiguous relationship with the new, 'cosmopolitan' aspects of their everyday life.
The 'new' is represented by Shun Li, a young Chinese immigrant who is sent to work in a local pub by the traffickers who brought her to Italy. Osteria Paradiso is a typical small town Venetian pub, the kind of place where local fishermen have been frequenting for generations. The protagonist, a silent and rather introverted woman, is seen as isolated and hanging on to the more traditional aspects of her native culture through the figure of ancient poet Qu Yuan; at the beginning of the film she is even ridiculed by a fellow immigrant ("Why do you care about these things? We're in Italy now!'). This changes as she begins speaking the local language and understanding her customers' very peculiar and personalised drink orders, she appears to be building a tentative bridge with her new surroundings.
She finally makes a real connection with one of the fishermen, Bepi, a Croatian who moved to Chioggia thirty years earlier. He has integrated well in the locals (he is known as 'the poet' for his way with words and rhymes), but somehow he still views himself as an outsider. Their fragile and ephemeral relationship is portrayed with subtlety and is genuinely moving – the scene where she visits his fishing hut sticks out as one of the key moments in the film. It is also a chance for the subtle, but highly effective cinematography to shine in its full glory: for the first time we see the sun, and our eye lingers on the mesmerising beauty of the mountains on the horizon.
Predictably their friendship is looked at by the townsfolk with suspicion – what can this quiet Chinese woman want from the elderly Bepi? The Chioggians live side by side with the Chinese community, but it is taken for granted that the two shall never make contact. In the film, the lagoon takes on a powerful symbolic meaning. Chioggia is surrounded and often engulfed by waters that are effectively 'trapped' and separate from the sea; it is a place that is worn out by its own habit and resistant to any sort of change.
Despite its exploration of themes such as xenophobia and labour exploitation, Shun Li and the Poet never feels didactic or finger-waving: Andrea Segre has succeeded in waving together a film that will haunt this writer for a long time.
Shun Li and the poet is available on the Filmhouse Player.