James Reviews Andrea Segre’s Shun Li And The Poet [PIFF 2013 Review]

Shun Li and the Poet

The best part about film festivals is seeing films that might takes months, years or for some crazy reason, never show up in your country for some reason. It might be rights issues or it might just not fit in with distributors that you’re familiar with. This is hopefully not the case for Andrea Segre’s film Shun Li and the Poet, a film I almost judged by the title alone and would have been a fool if I had done that.

Shun Li (the radiant Tao Zhao) is a textile worker, who’s been busy saving up and paying off the people who brought her to Italy from China and to ultimately pay for the transport of her 8 year old son to finally join her. She’s been living and working in the outskirts of Rome until she is upped and transferred to the small island town of Chioggia, in the Venetian lagoon, to work as a bartender at a tavern. There she meets one of the regulars, Bepi (Rade Šerbedžija, who has become the go to guy for badass baddies in action films), a Slavic fisherman, who is nicknamed ‘The Poet’ by friends. Even though language, cultures and about 30 years separates the two, they start to form a bond, a friendship with one another and the townsfolk who don’t let a single detail fall to the wayside do not approve at all.

This is a quiet and beautiful film, one that is all about subtlety and the pursuit to end loneliness. It’s also showcasing how a community can turn on people doing absolutely nothing wrong at all, as if this friendship will disrupt their day to day lives. Sound familiar? Shun Li and Bepi have found a kinship with one another and with a connecting fiber known as poetry, which they share a love for. It’s also frowned upon for her to fraternize with the patrons, which of course trickles back and Shun Li is forbidden to see Bepi at all. Through it all, and without kissing once, Shun Li tells Bepi she wants to marry him. He says he knows this and it’s also forbidden for a foreigner to pay off someone’s debt, so it wouldn’t be a marriage of convenience.

Considering this is in the Venice area, one would assume we’d see the beauty of that city, but like Shun Li, we only see glimpses from far away as she takes a bus trip every day to go to work for free at the tavern. Luckily for her, Bepi shows her the hidden beauty of Chioggia, the nooks and crannies of the town, every little bit it has to offer. Sadly, what it also has to offer is xenophobia, and with mutterings of townsfolk and one outright bully, it almost seems it’s two against the world for Shun Li and Bepi’s relationship. And luckily for us, we have the amazing Zhao Tao and Rade Šerbedžija anchoring this film as the leads and giving true weight to the performances. Tao should be garnering more praise, having won the best actress prize at Italy’s 2012 David di Donatello Awards, and didn’t speak a lick of Italian when she set foot there to film the movie. And it fits the aesthetic perfectly, with Šerbedžija’s weathered and workman Bepi being the unlikely poet. It’s truly a beautiful relationship, not the typical one expects from any romance.

Looks can truly be deceiving and no case is better than my judgement of this film just by the title alone. For some reason, without looking it up on IMDB or googling the title to see any news or awards this film might have won (Which were plenty), I assumed this film would be a bland drama, one where a woman falls in love with a man, a poet who has little money but a beautiful soul. And I’m glad I was completely wrong when it comes to this film and that I gave it the chance it deserved, like all films in fact do. Andrea Degre has made a real winner here and I would have kicked myself over and over for missing out if I had judged a book by its title.

If you’re a member of Film Movement’s film club, you can buy and stream the film right now at this link. Available to non-members on June 9th, 2013.