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Shun Li and the Poet – Andrea Segre – Simply a delight


Shun Li and The Poet – Andrea Segre

Like a glass of pure, fresh, home-made lemonade: with a hint of sweetness and a satisfying tang of fresh lemon on a sweltering hot, oppressive day – this delightful little gem refreshes one’s aesthetic palate, touches the soul and lifts the spirit. It is simply a delight – from its beautifully rich cinematography, gently insinuating score and affecting, insightful, sensitive central narrative.

Shun Li is a single parent, economic migrant to Italy from mainland China seeking a future for herself and her young son who she has had to leave back home. To repay the cost of her work permit and trip, Shun Li must work exceptionally long hours at whatever form of work her Triad sponsors demand of her. While not treated badly, she is not told how much she owes or how long it will take her to work off her debt. Beset by this uncertainty she must submissively do whatever she is ordered to do while awaiting ‘the news’ when she is formally told her debt is paid and her son can join her.

We first see her dutifully trying to conform, working in a garment sweatshop. As part of a presumably legal but oppressive system of organised labour, she is sent to work in a waterfront cafe on the Venice Lagoon. There she meets and befriends Bebi: a fisherman nearing retirement and himself a long-standing economic migrant from the now broken up state of Yugoslavia.

Bepi and his Italian-born mates meet, drink and play cards in the cafe to which Shun Li has moved. There is much gentle humour generated from her rudimentary Italian which the old guys teasingly improve. Bepi is known as the Poet on the Lagoon because he likes to make up doggerel-type humorous rhymes. Shun Li is a thoughtful sensitive young woman who takes solace in her work-dominated life through the works of Chinese poet Qu Yuan whose life is celebrated each year through a charming ceremonial involving the floating of a candle flame within a lotus-flower boat to drift wherever the current or tide wills.

There is suspicion and ignorance between the clannish, Triad-dominated Chinese community and the local Italians. What they have in common is that they are poor and merely trying to get by in an economically difficult world, each in their culturally distinctive way. These are the people providing the unseen back-up and supply of the goods and services for the tourists just across the water in Venice and the Lido. Essential, nearby, but separated socially and economically by an unbridgeable gulf from that casual affluence.

Apart from poetry, Shun Li and Bepi feel an instinctive empathy as immigrants and by the fact that Shun Li’s father too was a fisherman. Their bourgeoning friendship arouses comment: salacious suggestiveness from Bepi’s Italian mates, and cultural disapproval from her Triad masters, who tell Shun Li she must sever her links with Bepi on pain of having to start all over again to pay her debt to get her son to Italy.

Eventually Shun Li is sent away from the Cafe, the Lagoon and Bepi. Rewarded for her submissiveness, after a time she is eventually given the ‘news’ for which she has been so eagerly waiting. She discovers that someone has paid off her debt early and thus made it possible for her son to join her. She returns to the Cafe and looks for Bepi and a Chinese girl friend who had helped her.

She finds of course that with the passing of time things have changed and she has to come to terms with the power those changes exercise over her feelings. These culminate in a deeply moving ceremonial ending which brings the ebb and flow of emotions we have witnessed full circle – real life with its vicissitudes of events and experiences metaphorically echoing the drifting uncertainty of the flame of remembrance celebrating the life of the poet Qu Yuan.

Director Segre is well equipped to explore these issues, having previously used the documentary genre to draw attention to the dispossessed experience of the immigrant in Italy. He also has a PhD and Professorship of Sociology from the University of Bologna.

Whatever else, Segre has created a film of wonderful sensibility and sensitivity. Elegaic and contemplative in tone; while he captures the innate cultural reticence of Shun Li (superb performance from Tao Zhao) he intimates the inner turmoil of a mother needing to compromise on selfish things to achieve the reunion with her son.

While this setting has none of the grand and grandiose architecture of the Venice of the tourist and the rich; Segre manages to convey through a beautifully structured cinematographic style, visual echoes and expressive imagery that capture some of that unique atmosphere, slightly menacing but quintessentially Italian, that one finds in films like Don’t Look Now etc.

Try to seek this one out. You won’t be disappointed.

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