Io sono Li / Shun Li and the Poet is a wonderfully methodical film directed by the young director Andrea Segre. I had the pleasure of seeing its debut at the London Film Festival, when Segre was there to answer questions about the unsettling subject matter of the film. The plot centers on a young Chinese immigrant, Shun Li (Zhào Tāo), who works ruthlessly in order to obtain the documents to bring her son to join her in Italy.
The film begins when Shun Li gets transferred from her textile factory job outside of Rome to Chioggia, a small fishing village near Venice. She is forced to work in a café, where her clientele consists of pension-aged fisherman and the occasional petulant villager. Speaking little Italian, she forms an interesting bond with a Slavic fisherman named Bepi (Rade Šerbedžija). Bepi finds it easy to empathize with her experience in a strange land far from home, and they later discover that they both have estranged relationships with their children. In the end, Shun Li gets the documents for her son with the secret financial aid of Bepi, and Shun Li must come to terms with her good fortune at the expense of Bepi's health.
On a larger scale, Io sono Li is also a remarkably astute depiction of a common immigrant experience in Italy. Foreigners who don't speak the language are often treated as a separate class. Africans and Asians are particularly excluded on the basis of racism, xenophobia, and other factors which merit further attention. My post on the film Va' Pensiero: Storie Ambulanti, a documentary on the African immigrant experience in Italy, shines further light on this issue (interestingly, Zhào Tāo became the first Asian to win the Best Actress David di Donatello award for her role in this film). Furthermore, Segre attested, and spent most of his Q&A time, elaborating on the greater importance of the film. He insists that it is meant to shine a spotlight on the indentured servitude of foreign residents in Italy, but also felt that it did not require kicking and screaming to do so. His film reflects this attitude of ease and pacifism, underlined by the smooth and serene omnipresence of water and fog throughout the movie.
Shun Li herself is remarkably good at maintaining calm despite her indentured servitude. Her soft, soothing voice floats over the film, leaping over cuts as she recites letters to her son off-screen. The desaturated, earthy tones of the film also help to ground the characters in their lagoon setting, making Shun Li's plight all the more real. She often wanders the city, looking off into the distance as if she could see all the way to China.
This is also a film that merits its slowness, even though I do not usually gravitate toward slow films. Its slow suspense is illustrated by long sequences, a general lack of action, and Shun Li's awkward inability to communicate with others. The resulting effect is a film in which the viewer must pay careful attention to her myriad cues and glances. It is a very effective way to absorb such a complex topic when one is forced to pay attention to what is unsaid.
The excellent acting combined with Segre's mood-setting talents make this a great film to watch and learn from. It is raw, subtle, and layered with meaning.
Io sono Li. Dir. Andrea Segre. Jolefilm/Aeternam Pictures, 2011. 98 min.
Aloisi, Silvia. "Insight: Italy's Chinese garment workshops boom as workers suffer." Reuters online, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/29/us-italy-sweatshop-insight-idUSBRE9BS04D20131229. December 2013.