Shun Li (Zhao Tao, winner of the David Di Donatello for Best Actress), a Chinese immigrant in her forties who has worked in a textile workshop on the outskirts of Rome for several years, is working hard desperate to obtain the documents that would allow her son, currently living with his grandfather, to come to Italy. When she is suddenly transferred to Chioggia, a small but beautiful town in the Venetian lagoon, to work as a bartender, her life is sent into confusing turmoil. She still has much to repay her brokers, and her stable employment might not to be so stable, having to learn new skills and be a stranger all over again.
She tends to the requests of the regulars, mostly local fishermen and pensioners, as best she can. Amongst them is Bepi (Rade Serbedzija, in an extraordinarily reserved, against-type role), or as his friends call him, 'The Poet', a recently retired Slavic fisherman who emigrated decades prior. He is drawn to Shun Li's ever-present sense of contentment and joy, masking her sadness and loneliness. After discovering a mutual interest in poetry, they gradually begin to reveal more about one another. Bepi invites Shun Li out to his fishing hut, and Shun Li shows him photos of her father, also a fisherman, and her son.
They share quiet talks about their cultures and families and bond over a mutual feeling of loneliness and reciprocated offers of kindness. Shot by renowned DP, Luca Bigazzi (responsible for some ingenious work on This Must Be The Place), this elegantly composed picture displays immense affection for the Italian setting, and is a tender human drama with gentle activism for multiculturalism.
But with the region experiencing economic change paranoia starts, and Shun Li and Bepi's innocent friendship gets mistaken for something more. The key problem with the film is accepting that some of these locals could turn so quickly on their friend, and become the vocal and prejudiced anti-immigrant cynics they showed no sign of before. Bepi's friends even unite with an undesirable local they have several run-ins with at the bar in condemning and publicly humiliating Bepi for what they believe is more than an innocent friendship.
It is sad to see Bepi's friends and Shun Li's employers turn on them so aggressively, blowing their innocent friendship out of proportion. For Shun Li, the rumours that spread disrespect the local Chinese community and her contacts threaten to restart her debts and disallow her son's arrival. Bepi becomes an outcast to his ignorant friends who believe that Shun Li works for the Chinese mafia.
Shun Li and the Poet is a simple but heart-wrenching drama that admirably focuses on character and story and underplays melodrama and the politics surrounding Italian social integration. With kind characters we support and sympathise with, this is a top-tier recommendation at this year's festival.