thu 24/06/2021

Shun Li and the Poet | reviews, news & interviews

Shun Li and the Poet

Shun Li and the Poet

Feelings develop across nationalities in tender story of friendship frustrated

As life goes on between land and sea, the sun shines on a moment of togetherness

Italian documentarist Andrea Sigre’s first feature captures with great tenderness the delicate balance of friendship that grows up between two characters who live as relative outsiders in their community.

From its Italian title Io sono Li (I Am Li), we might have expected a subject based on more documentary strands involving the life of the film's eponymous Chinese immigrant heroine, who’s paying off an unquantified debt to those who arranged her journey to Italy by working in any job she's assigned, but Sigre’s film develops far beyond that towards human drama of the subtlest kind.

Li mostly has factory jobs, though there’s no element involving exploitation of foreign workers here - the only drawback in her position involves sharing accommodation with fellow Chinese workers noisier than she is. We hear her first as she explains in overvoice the tradition of floating candlelit lanterns on water to honour the soul of a Chinese poet, only for the camera to pull back to show that they are bobbing in a cramped bathtub, a boisterous game of mah-jong proceeding in the background.

The film’s small flower of mutual understanding is destroyed as quickly as it had budded

Li (Tao Zhao, best known as Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s favourite in films like Still Life) has a sadness to her, dreaming of the son whom she has left behind in China; he’s due to join her at some unspecified point in the future (“they decide when”), after she has obediently worked off her own passage and earned sufficient credit to fund his journey.

An unexpected transfer to Chioggia, a small town on the lagoon south of Venice, takes her out of her usual world, into a different, much more local community, to run a small bar for its new owner, the town’s only other Chinese presence. It’s the attractively unmodernised haunt of some of Chioggia’s fishermen, who continue with old fishing methods (pictured below right, checking the nets) alongside a slightly more modern existence. Shun Li’s arrival, with her haltingly accented Italian and gamin shyness, is greeted with gentle amusement, and a feeling of sympathy develops between her and Bepi (Rade Sherbedgia), who’s something of a poet himself as well as a fisherman now on the cusp of retirement. Recently widowed, he’d first arrived in Chioggia years ago from Yugoslavia across the Adriatic, so one of the things that draws the two together is a shared sense of coming from somewhere else.

Their growing intimacy, though poetically platonic, nevertheless gives rise to the kind of suspicions that such small communities are prone to. The film’s small flower of mutual understanding is destroyed as quickly as it had budded, leaving only remembered moments of special understanding (echoes of another film about the unlikely coming-together of outsiders, and feelings developing across nationalities, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort?).

All this is gloriously caught in Luca Bigazzi’s water-coloured cinematography, which relishes the understated beauty of Chioggia’s homely surroundings (none of the grandeurs of nearby Venice here) in dark moody blues, especially well caught at times of fog or flood. This dominant tone of submerged sadness is made doubly poignant when set against the rare moments of illumination when the sun shines (main picture) on director Sigre’s intimate story.

François Couturier's score occasionally risks laying on the feelings over-emphatically, but it stops just on the right side of restraint, mingling Chinese elements with minor-key modulations. Shun Li and the Poet is a surefire heartwinner, and marks Sigre as a name to look out for.

Watch the trailer for Shun Li and the Poet   

  

One of the things that draws the two together is a shared sense of coming from somewhere else

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters