Shun Li and the Poet
Written and directed by Andrea Segre
Starring Tao Zhao and Rade Serbedzija
Available to stream on Netflix and Fandor
I saw this film for the first time in my hometown of Stockton, California at the 6th Annual San Joaquin International Film Festival. I think the theme that year was “life on the fringes of society” or something like that. I remember well some of the other movies offered at the fest: Barbara, a magical period piece set in 1980s East Germany; Golden Slumbers a touching, bittersweet, and even more under-the-radar documentary about Cambodian film; and a brilliant documentary called Chasing Ice (which I’ve reviewed on this blog). But of all the film experiences that week, this one was my favorite. I distinctly remember walking away from Shun Li and knowing that I wanted, at some point, to be a film curator and give people a chance to witness something this unforgettable. If it hadn’t been for a handful of passionate movie lovers back home, I never would have seen this gem.
The story is set in a small port village in Italy, brimming with crotchety old men, ramshackle bars, and the fishy essence of the daily catch. There is an almost perpetual mist that hangs over the town. The entire movie feels wet. It also feels like a dream. But I promise, it doesn’t feel like a wet dream.
Plopped into this setting are the two main characters of our story. Shun Li is a Chinese immigrant, sweet, hard-working, and sad. She is content making a living, surviving, working long shifts at a local dive. Bepi is a well-known personality of the town, with a propensity for romanticism. His fishermen buddies therefore nickname him The Poet. Like Shun Li, he is an immigrant, having come from Yugoslavia decades before.
Through a series of coincidences and mishaps, the two begin to form a bond. They share a love for poetry, and their bond becomes a poem in and of itself. They develop one of the most heartfelt and honest friendships I’ve ever seen on film, offering each other loyalty, laughter, and an escape from loneliness. Despite the very obvious and difficult language barrier, and the resistance their relationship draws from the locals, they develop an intimate understanding of one another. There is a potent, palpable chemistry that forms between them.
Outwardly, the film appears somewhat subdued and withdrawn. It is quiet, reflective. But there is a deep love in these two characters, not just for each other, but for life and goodwill and the joy of man. Often in movies like this, the romanticism is so heavy-handed and obvious that the characters come off like cheap caricatures, written solely to squeeze emotions out of the audience. I never felt like this watching Shun Li and the Poet. Both characters felt so real and so alive that I wanted to spend some time with them. That’s what good movies do. They make you want to join in the magic. And returning to this film over and over again, I’ll get the chance to do just that.