CIFF 2012: Shun Li and the Poet (Io Sono Li, 2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrea Segre

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a lot of bones to pick with the translations of some of the film titles at this year’s festival, but in the case of Io Sono Li, I have to give it to the translators. I Am Li is far too prosaic and does a disservice to the touching relationship at the heart of this tone poem of a film. First-time feature director Andrea Segre certainly has a poet’s heart for having conceived and written a simple tale set in a complicated world and filming it with a discreet and tender hand.

The film opens with a title card that explains that every year, the Chinese celebrate Poet’s Day, marking the life of their greatest poet, Qu Yuan (340–278 BCE), by floating candles on waterways to help him on his journey to paradise. In the next shot, we see candles illuminated within paper lotus flowers moving gently on water; when the camera pulls back, it reveals two Chinese women leaning over a bathtub full of water, rippling the water with their hands to move the candles. A drunk Chinese man comes into the bathroom and mocks them. We see a close-up of one of the women, Shun Li (Tao Zhao), and watch her face pinch in distaste at the sound of the man urinating in the toilet.

Li is a single mother in her mid 30s who is working at a garment factory and living in a dormitory for Chinese workers in Rome. She has gone there to make a better life for herself and her 8-year-old son, who is still in China living with her father, but must work off the debt she owes to the employers who paid her way to Italy before her son will be allowed to join her. She misses him very much and writes to him and her father frequently, reassuring them and herself that one day she will get the “news” that her debt has been repaid.

Soon after, Li is told she is being transferred to Chioggia, a small fishing village on the Venetian lagoon, to work in a café. After a perfunctory greeting by her new bosses, she goes up to her room to meet her roommate Lian and settle in.

Li’s introduction from the café regulars is a mixed bag. When she tries to settle the tabs they ran up under the previous owner, they pretend they are not the people whose names she reads out. One of the regulars, Bepi (Rade Serbedziga), a Yugoslavian fisherman called The Poet because he makes up funny rhymes, has been living in Italy for more than 30 years. He comes in and orders a coffee with prune liqueur. Shun Li gives him the coffee but omits the liqueur, as her command of Italian is limited. He goes behind the bar, takes the bottle off the shelf, shows her the picture of the prune on the label, repeats the Italian for “prune,” and pours a measure of the liqueur into his coffee. Li thanks him for teaching her, and so begins what turns into a touching friendship of two lonely people.

Segre’s film taps the slower rhythms and muffling mists of a coastal village to give his characters and the audience room to breathe and enjoy getting to know this town and its inhabitants. For example, to Li’s surprise, the lagoon periodically floods the village for two or three hours. It doesn’t seem to put a dent in the village routine, as people don galoushes and float their boats down the streets to get around. Or one day, Bepi takes Li out on his fishing boat, and he watches her standing in the sun, her eyes closed, her face turned upward and looking serene and present. Watching this film feels like that—warm and restful despite the constant work Li and the fishermen must bend their backs to to get by.

When one of the fishermen, Coppe (Marco Paolini), retires after 35 years, we return to reality and understand that with age comes leisure, but also pain. Bepi’s is the loss of his wife the year before and the entreaties of his son, worried about his health, to come live with him in Mestre. His pain is compounded when the regulars start gossiping about his relationship with Li, and the reflexive xenophobia of small towns builds against both Li and even the mainly assimilated Bepi, a reminder that prejudice runs deep and can erupt at any perceived threat. Li is warned to break off contact with Bepi or start from the very beginning in paying off her debt. I felt the actors were true to their characters, and that Bepi was, in fact, falling in love with Li. And although the conflict was believable, it felt a little tacked on, indulging the Italian weakness for melodrama in a way that undercut the film’s poetry.

Nonetheless, Segre mainly maintains an enticing reticence throughout the film. For example, Lian has a very important role, but she is only shown walking somewhere every night to work—where is never revealed—and performing tai chi on the beach. Li and Coppe take a boat out to Bepi’s fishing hut near the end of the film, and Segre chooses to linger on the orange glow, reminiscent of the paper lotuses, on their faces before he pulls back to show the hut on fire. The very indirection of his focus reminds us that the commonplace and the lives of common people can be filled with poetry if we could only experience them in a different way. Shun Li and the Poet is a beautiful meditation of a movie.

Shun Li and the Poet screens Sunday, October 21, at 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 6:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Northwestern University’s Block Cinema will also screen Shun Li and the Poet on Friday, November 16, at 7 p.m. The screening will be held at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston.

Previous coverage

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)

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