The LUX Prize 2012 – Shun Li and The Poet

The last finalist of the 2012 LUX Prize and which I’m reviewing is Shun Li and The Poet, from first time feature director Andrea Segre.

The film examines issues such as cultural alienation, xenophobia, exploitation, splintered families and the universal yearning for affection. The setting is Chioggia, a small city-island on the Venetian lagoon.

The protagonists are Shun Li (Zhao Tao) and Bepi (Rade Šerbedžija). She is sent from a textile sweat shop in Rome to work in a dingy café by Chinese gangsters to whom she is virtually an indentured slave. Aged in her mid-30s, she works hard to pay off her debts so her young son, who lives with her father in China, can join her.

Bepi is a café regular, a solitary man who was born in the former Yugoslavia and has lived in Italy for 30 years. Gradually a friendship develops as both realise they have much in common; they’re foreigners,  they lived under Communist rule, Shun Li is a single parent and Bepi’s wife died a year ago, her father and grandfather were fishermen; and both are distanced from their children. Bepi isn’t close to his son who lives with his wife and their two kids in Mestre, a city on the mainland.

Also, both have a passion for poetry, albeit in different forms. She is obsessed with a Chinese poet and celebrates a Festival of the Poets. He’s nicknamed ‘the Poet’ because of his facility with rhymes.

As they grow closer, she is warned by her roommate that their Chinese bosses don’t allow them to socialise with the locals and doing so could jeopardise her chances of reuniting with her son. “I’ll be careful, don’t worry,” she responds.

On the other side of the coin, Bepi’s friends and other patrons gossip and gripe about what they believe is an affair and they mock Shun Li’s nationality. One guy is overtly racist, railing against the Chinese “invasion” and the rise of a “new empire”.

The film is beautifully shot, rendering the lagoon and the fishing town setting in greys and blues, that feels cold but enticing.  The town is near Venice, and on one of her first days off Shun Li visits the city and Segre uses this scene to highlight the some-what bleak nature of Chioggia by contrast.

The film deals with its themes with subtlety and a lightness of touch that is quite refreshing, making the films message all the more powerful.  The performance of Zhao Tao is particularly memorable; reserved and understated but very moving.

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