#8220;Shun Li and the Poet” (“Io sono Li”) is a quiet meditation on the rejuvenating power of friendship and the crippling force of societal expectations. The film centers on the friendship between Shun Li, a Chinese woman, and Bepi, a local fisherman of Yugoslav origin known only as “the Poet” because of his penchant for rhyming. Li is transferred from a job in a textile factory outside Rome to the small town of Chioggia in Veneto, where she struggles to assume her new role as a bartender at a local café.
Croatian Rade Serbedzija is superb as the charming and thoughtful Bepi, who grows closer to Li based on their shared background as immigrants from Communist countries. Though Tao Zhao’s performance as Li is one-note at times, she shines in scenes in which her son is the topic of discussion. When she tells Bepi that she must wait indefinitely to find out when her son can join her in Italy, her despair and heartbreak is palpable. Director Andrea Segre’s willingness to include subtle romantic undertones makes the growing relationship between Bepi and Li especially gratifying.
Segre also manages to highlight the parochialism of the local residents without resorting to condescension. The ensemble cast — comprised mostly of the older retired men who are Bepi’s friends — know little of the world around them. Their ignorance emerges as comedic naiveté, or so it seems. They wonder if the Chinese know anything about seafood cuisine. But these seemingly harmless comments are eventually at one with a critical view of the effect that Chinese immigrants are having on the local economy, an ongoing Italian social and political issue.
The film’s remarkable cinematography, with sweeping shots of the rippling Adriatic Sea, highlights the solitude of the protagonists. The lyrical voiceovers of Li, who speaks in Chinese as she writes to her son and recites poetry, are enhanced by breathtaking shots of the town’s bridges and its lagoon (Chioggia is on a small island south of Venice).
Notwithstanding the fine balance between the lyricism and plot, the dramatic pacing is uneven, maybe a reflection of Segre’s background as a documentary filmmaker. While Bepi and Li’s relationship is touching, it progresses too quickly and ends abruptly. Without much warning, Bepi vanishes from the storyline and the film comes to a close. The same is true of Li’s underdeveloped relationship with her mysterious roommate, Zang. In spite of these flaws, Segre’s feature debut is a touching portrait of an unlikely friendship.
The Italian title, “Io sono Li,” is intended to mean “I am Li,” but can also be read, “I am there,” underlining Segre’s interest in immigration and dislocation.
Shun Li and the Poet (“Io sono Li”) ★★ 1/2. Directed by Andrea Segre, with Tao Zhao, Rade Serbedzija, Marco Paolini, Roberto Citran, Giuseppe Battiston.