Set on a small island in the Veneto lagoon, we follow Shun Li (Tao Zhao), a thirty something immigrant from China who takes a job at a local bar to raise enough funds to ensure her 8-year-old son can soon join her. Feeling isolated in this foreign land, she befriends the ageing fisherman Bepi (Rade Serbedzija), who, although having lived in Italy for 30 years, is originally a foreigner himself, hailing from Yugoslavia. A rapport is formed between the pair, as we explore this moving relationship with a delicate craft.
There is an air of tranquillity to this title, as not only does it feature a modest sized cast, but the picturesque Venetian setting gives us a lot to ponder over, while we marvel at the scenery in the meantime. By placing this story on a small island, this further enhances the feeling of loneliness as we feel cut off from the outside world, with a barrier around these characters. That said, the sea makes for a peaceful acquaintance to the narrative, adding a calming nature to the title – while making up a fair amount of impressive cut-away shots in the process.
The score also plays a part in this regard, as a mellow and enchanting soundtrack that creates a relaxing ambience. However at times this elegiac music seems almost manipulative, as it’s incessant use is perhaps nudging the viewer a little too forcefully into the tale. In this respect, it’s a bit like an art house equivalent of crime dramas such as CSI, which bear a consistently pulsating soundtrack which keeps the tempo at a steady pace. This does much of the same thing yet in the opposite direction, disallowing the viewer any room for emotional manoeuvre.
The performances from the leading duo are both impressive, both actors displaying a vulnerability and passiveness to their demeanour, that allows for them to be warm and endearing, deriving from the fact they are both tourists in a foreign country. Their relationship is made all the more powerful given they are both being somewhat alienated by their own compatriots, as Shun Li’s boss is inappreciative and unforgiving at times. It’s enjoyable to see Serbedzija take on such a role, as we are so used to seeing him play the stereotypical Eastern European villain in Hollywood movies such as Taken 2 and The Saint. This shows he has a gentle side too.
With a moving finale, Shun Li and the Poet is a pensive and slow-burning production that will have you pondering over it for days after. Segre’s first narrative feature shows much promise, dealing with the severe theme of prejudice delicately. Though rife within this title, with the Italian locals show a palpable disdain towards the blossoming friendship between Shun Li and Bepi, given the gently hypnotic nature of this film, and the poignancy of the intimate moments between the lonely pair, Segre ensures that the theme remains a mere undercurrent rather than an overbearing obtrusion.