In the lyrical opening shot of “Li and the Poet,” lit candles drift over a dark expanse of water, as voiceover explains the Chinese tradition of floating lanterns on rivers to protect the soul of celebrated poet Qu Yuan. The camera pulls back to reveal not a Chinese river, but a bathtub in a cramped Italian apartment. This fakeout is a telling introduction to documaker Andrea Segre’s first narrative feature, a thin but attractively opalescent immigrant study, prioritizing exquisite, atmospheric detail over the bigger picture. Gentle pic with moderate arthouse potential should continue to charm auds on the festival circuit.
Core narrative premise of the film, detailing the slowly burgeoning but strictly platonic friendship between a shy Chinese barmaid and an older Slavic fisherman in a sleepy Italian lagoon town, promises a more explicit portrait of clashing cultures than Segre is ultimately interested in offering: He’s too concerned with common experiences, notably the universal power of poetry, to get overtly political about his protagonist’s grim circumstances.
Shun Li (played with affecting passivity by Jia Zhangke’s muse Zhao Tao) is an unmarried mother of one, ensnared in a shady immigrant-employment scheme requiring her to switch menial jobs at the drop of a hat; her bosses’ vague promise to send her young son over from China, once she has earned the requisite papers, is the elusive carrot being dangled before her. Transferred from a textile factory in Rome to a dilapidated working men’s cafe in Chioggia, a fishing community just south of Venice with all the famous city’s canals and little of its charm, she is as bewildered by her new environment as the crusty male customers are bemused by her quietly exotic presence.
Li finds an unlikely ally in Bepi (Rade Sherbedgia), a long-acclimatized Eastern European immigrant with a penchant for rather rudimentary rhyme; as the two lonely outsiders find comfort in each other’s company, however, the unrefined Italian community around them grows increasingly wary of this perceived Asian intruder. Segre is tentative in his depiction of prejudice, and the film wants for more immediate conflict, not least since the characters of Li and Bepi are almost as watery as their surroundings. Still, if the material flirts with the maudlin, there’s an emotional delicacy at work here that sees the pic through to its unsurprising denouement.
It’s no intended slight to say it’s the rapturous watercolor imagery of ace d.p. Luca Bigazzi (a Paolo Sorrentino regular) that provides the most vivid poetry in this fine-grained production; his evocation of rain-lashed coastal Italy reps the tonal inverse of the honey-dipped Tuscany he conjured in last year’s “Certified Copy.” Francois Couturier’s elegiac but over-prettified score perhaps sells the pathos a little too hard.