It's not without its problems, but Shun Li and the Poet is quiet, charming and believable, the sort of movie that's good for a cold afternoon, a hot cup of tea and a good cry. Viewers who remember Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent will find parallels to that movie—about unlikely friendships between lonely people—with heavier doses of sadness.
Shun Li (Zhao Tao) is a Chinese immigrant working in a factory in Rome, slowly paying off the debt she incurred when traveling from China to Italy, and waiting for the day her 8-year-old son will join her. It's an expensive process.
One day, Shun Li is sent to work in a pub near Venice despite having no experience dealing with bar patrons. The clientele is mostly old fisherman, men who are pensioners or on the verge of retiring. There, she meets Bepi (Rade Sherbedgia), a Slav immigrant who's made his home nearby for 30 years. He and Shun Li become friends.
It's here that Shun Li and the Poet stretches its credibility. Two immigrants from very different cultures having shared experiences is completely reasonable. That Bepi is something of a poet (he makes up rhymes) and Shun Li reveres Chinese poet Qu Yuan is a stretch; these two have enough in common without tacking on awkward symbolism.
Bepi and Shun Li are drawn to each other because they're lonely, and they're both dealing with pain. Bepi's wife died a year before, and Shun Li's son is stuck in China as she works off her debts. So they find comfort in each other, trading stories about working in the sea (Shun Li's father was a fisherman), and taking comfort in watching sunsets from Bepi's shanty.
What makes the movie work is the chemistry between Rade Sherbedgia and Zhao Tao. Sherbedgia puts his normally off-putting disheveled look and gruff manner to good use, making Bepi's roughness seem a result of a hard life hauling nets out of the water, rather than the byproduct of a distasteful personality.
But naturally, two people in a movie who have such age and culture barriers can't possibly be left alone to be friends. Shun Li and the Poet strains under the weight of forced plot machinations as Bepi's friends and Shun Li's bosses cast gimlet eyes at the their friendship. Sorry Rodney King: We all still can't get along. There are fistfights and ultimatums and bad luck even in Italy, where—in this movie, anyway—all the red wine in the world can't make people relax.
Still, there's plenty here to like. Sherbedgia's performance is so charming, it makes one forget The Saint and Taken 2 and X-Men: First Class. Zhao Tao successfully toes the line her character must. There's just enough of a hint of emotion behind her placid appearance; it's as if she must make a choice, daily, to keep her emotional turmoil to herself.
Director of photography Luca Bigazzi captures the beauty of a seaside town, even through the constant mists and rains that go along with it. There's also a marked difference in the cinematography from scene to scene at the café where Shun Li works, as if the overall mood of its inhabitants changes the quality of lighting.
How it all shakes out probably won't be much of a surprise, but that doesn't make the impact these characters have on the audience muted. Shun Li and Bepi have a bond, and that's one of the great things about friendship: There's someone out there who understands all the things no one else does. Shun Li and the Poet gets the relationship between its two leads right, even if it falters in other places.
SHUN LI AND THE POET
Directed by Andrea Segre
With Zhao Tao and Rade Sherbedgia