Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 11:03 am 
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Cross-cultural loneliness in the Veneto

Andrea Segre, a documentary filmmaker with a particular interest in immigration, approaches his favorite topic in fiction feature form in Shun Li and the Poet, whose Italian title Io sono Li, "I Am LI," if you read it aloud could also mean simply "I am there." This film is perhaps a little too poetic and gentle and melancholy to the point of sentimentality and easy emotion, but it is also beautifully made, evocative of the delicacy of some Asian filmmaking, and blessed by the extraordinary presence of Zhao Tao, the muse of Jia Zhang-ke, the leading figure of the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese cinema. She won the Italian Davide di Donatello Best Actress Award for her mesmerizing presence. Segre also wisely enlisted the services of ace cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, whose lush, warm images of Tuscany in Kiarostami's Certified Copy contrast with the, yes, poetic watery landscapes of the Veneto he supplies here, with their gray winter mists and rain. A platonic romance, somewhat watery also, between Zhao Tao's character, Shun Li, and Beppi (soulful Croatian vet Rade Serbedzija), a Slavic fisherman, provides the slowly unfolding foreground action, while the story follows Shunn Li's difficult journey as an immigrant.

An unwed mother, Li has entered the Draconian system of modern indentured servitude as a worker for Chinese businessmen, hoping to remain in Italy with papers and eventually be allowed to have her young son with her there. At the outset she works in a clothing factory on the outskirts of Rome, but is abruptly transferried to an osteria (or pub) in the Veneto city island of Chioggia. All of a sudden she has to go from manual labor to serving drinks and keeping accounts. Dealing with people and speaking Italian become her new priorities. (The actress didn't know the language when the shoot began: her Italian is slow and clumsy but unflagging and serviceable.)

Beppi has fished there for thirty years, and now, having recently lost his wife, faces his retirement, which his don urges him to do and move in with him and his wife in Mestre. A natural bond develops between Beppi and Shun Li, and their growing affection leads to little rendezvous, but Li has little freedom. When she asks her Chinese handler for a half-day to buy her little boy in China a birthday present, the request is flatly refused. She and her roommate don't know how long they'll work for nothing before they get the "news" that their "debt" is paid and in her case, that her little boy can come. Asian stoicism reigns.

There is a self-conscious parallel between Beppi's local nickname of "Poet" because he makes up little funny rhymes, and the Chinese poet Li celebrates on his day with dandles floated in the water. This becomes a cute if factitious bond between the two people, apart their shared outsider status, she the new one, he the old one. She pointedly tells him she does not want to marry him. Doing so would not get her out of her indentured status with the Chinese entrepreneurs. Anything but. Serbedzija is adept at navigating the waters of his two roles, salty fisherman crony of the osteria regulars and kindly soulmate to the Asian lady.

The community of Chioggia is small, of the osteria smaller, and the other customers accept Shun Li a little grudgingly. Her pale face looks strange in this setting, her voice sounds odd. It takes the regulars (non-actors used here) a while to go from calling her "China" to calling her Li. When she and Beppi become more friendly, they express their disapproval to him. They see China as an alien invader, a mafia seeking to rule the world. Beppi has a physical clash with an obnoxious young bully. The Chinese handlers are more blunt about this relationship with Li. She must not fraternize with locals. They tell Li that she must go gack to talking to Beppi only as a customer or her accumulated work time will go back to zero, or worse.

Some good things happen, and some bad things, after this. The film lags in the middle. But if you stick with it there are poetic moments and healing rituals at the end.

Io sono Li, 100min, debuted at Venice in 2011 and showed at a number of other festivals, then opened theatrically in Spain and France and some French reviews were very good (Allociné press: 3.6), but one or two noted over-sweetness and a lack of rhythm (the lag I noted). The French title, La petite Venise ("Little Venice") caused some to emphasize the contrast of the setting with the touristic mecca we all love. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series, Nov. 11-18, 2012.

SFFS New Italian Cinema showtimes:
Wednesday November 14, 6:15 pm
Sunday November 18, 3:30 pm
Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema

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