Gianni Amelio's complex but unfocused "The Missing Star" wanders too long through the backroads of China to hold much interest, except perhaps as a superbly photographed travelogue about that vast country. Above all, this slender tale is frustratingly under-motivated. It's hard to see where the arthouse auds are going to come from.

Weaving between a realistic, semi-documentary style and a metaphoric story, Gianni Amelio’s complex but unfocused “The Missing Star” wanders too long through the backroads of China to hold much interest, except perhaps as a superbly photographed travelogue about that vast country. Above all, this slender tale — about an Italian maintenance man convinced he must repair a defective blast furnace sold to the Chinese — is frustratingly under-motivated. Lacking the emotional grab of the director’s “The House Keys” and with a premise about as sexy as a remake of “Potemkin,” it’s hard to see where the arthouse auds are going to come from.

However, the film may generate press and prizes in Italy based on the high repute in which local crix hold Amelio, who won a Golden Lion at Venice in 1998 for “The Way We Laughed.”

Here once again, a nicely understated political dimension adds depth and resonance to Sergio Castellitto’s working-class hero and his otherwise crazy mission. In addition, Amelio’s vision of China as an uncharted wilderness recalls the visual elegance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 doc “Chung Kuo — China,” as well as the spirit of the master’s “Il grido” set in the Po valley. Interestingly, in Ermanno Rea’s novel the protag never sets foot in the place.

When an Italian steel mill closes down, its refurbished blast furnace is sold to a Chinese broker with few questions asked. Vincenzo Buonavolonta (Castellitto), whose last name means “Goodwill,” barges in on an all-Chinese dinner and demands to be allowed to repair a design flaw that has already caused serious accidents. In his clumsy excitement to make himself understood, the out-of-work technician gets a young interpreter at the dinner, Liu (Tai Ling), fired.

Rather than carefully disassemble the furnace, as Vincenzo insists, the buyers rip it apart with blow torches and whisk it away to China. For reasons that desperately need explaining but aren’t, Vincenzo sets off after the furnace on his own dime.

Act Two finds him in modern, boom-town Shanghai. Told the furnace has been shipped to a distant city, he miraculously tracks down Liu and persuades her to let bygones be bygones and accompany him.

This fairly intriguing set-up starts to fall apart as soon as the story evaporates into a road movie. The long, exhausting trip takes Vincenzo and Liu up the Yangtze river by barge, by bus to Liu’s picturesque village Yinchuan, then by truckbed to Baotou, bringing him face to face with abject poverty and abandoned children, overcrowded apartment blocks and a remote socialist metropolis still presided over by statues of Mao.

All these places are depicted as unimaginably remote and exotic. Most unrealistically, Vincenzo does not own a cell phone, making it all the easier for him to get lost in this unknown universe.

As the Marco Polo of the situation, Castellitto (“Don’t Move,” “The Religion Hour”) is rudely brash but also idealistic and determined, probably with a past as a union militant though this is never spelled out. One can’t help admiring the Don Quixote in him, though his quest makes so little sense that it seems more like a metaphor about a man searching for himself. He is well-paired narratively, though not romantically, with the 21-year-old language student Ling, who is an appealing presence with her grave face belied by a wry sense of humor.

Armchair travelers will find paradise in cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s deep focus panoramas and his gliding camera, making every shot a knockout. Locations were lensed in Beijing, Singapore and Genoa. Also richly textured is the soundtrack by veteran Remo Ugolinelli and Franco Piersanti’s moving score.

The Missing Star

Italy-France-Switzerland

Production

A 01 release (in Italy) of a Cattleya/Babe/Carac Film/RTSI Television co-production in association with Achab Film. (International sales: Lakeshore Intl., London.) Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz. Executive producer, Mario Cotone. Directed by Gianni Amelio. Screenplay, Amelio, Umberto Contarello, based on a novel by Ermanno Rea.

Crew

Camera (color), Luca Bigazzi; editor, Simona Paggi; music, Franco Piersanti; production designer, Attilio Viti; costume designer, Cristina Francioni; sound (Dolby Digital), Remo Ugolinelli. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 5, 2006. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Vincenzo Buonavolonta - Sergio Castellitto Liu Hua - Tai Ling
With: Angelo Costabile, Hiu Sun Ha, Catherine Sng, Enrico Vanigiani, Roberto Rossi, Xu Chungqing, Wang Biao, Zhao Jianyun, Hunag Qianhao, Luo Xiufeng, Tang Xianbi, Wang Lin, Guo Yong, Duan Ping, Li Zhenduo, Ma Qing. (Italian, Chinese dialogue)
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