Shun Li (Tao Zhao) is a softly-spoken young Chinese immigrant who is moved by her Chinese broker from a clothing factory to a new job as a barmaid in Chioggia, a small fishing community on the Venetian lagoon. There she manages the bar and serves the fishermen regulars in halting Italian. Among these is Bepi (Rade Serbedzija), nicknamed 'The Poet', who has just retired from a long fishing career. He and the gentle Shun Li bond, sharing a love of poetry, both being from families of fishermen, and both are foreigners (Bepi is Slavic). Bepi also learns that Shun Li is struggling to earn enough money to pay back her brokers so she can bring her young son to Italy...

A lyrical, moving saga of a fragile friendship amid cultural alienation and prejudice.

ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL: The first dramatic feature from documentary filmmaker Andrea Segre, Shun Li and the Poet is an elegant, subtly affecting saga of the friendship between a shy Chinese café worker and a middle-aged Slavic fisherman.

The performances by the two leads are splendid

Writer-director Segre deftly examines issues such as cultural alienation, xenophobia, exploitation, splintered families and the universal yearning for affection. The setting is Chioggia, a small city-island on the Venetian lagoon, where the water becomes an allegory for swirling emotions and the ebb and flow of village life.

The protagonists are Shun Li (Zhao Tao) and Bepi (Croatian actor Rade Å erbedžija). She is sent from a textile sweat shop in Rome to work in a dingy café by Chinese gangsters to whom she is virtually an indentured slave. Aged in her mid-30s, she works hard to pay off her debts so her young son, who lives with her father in China, can join her.

Bepi is a café regular, a solitary man who was born in the former Yugoslavia and has lived in Italy for 30 years. Gradually a friendship develops as both realise they have much in common: they’re foreigners; they lived under Communist rule; Shun Li is a single parent and Bepi’s wife died a year ago; her father and grandfather were fishermen; and both are distanced from their children. Bepi isn’t close to his son who lives with his wife and their two kids in Mestre, a city on the mainland of Venice.

Also, both have a passion for poetry, albeit in different forms. She is obsessed with a Chinese poet and celebrates a Festival of the Poets. He’s nicknamed 'the Poet’ because of his facility with rhymes.

Shun Li asks her boss for time off to buy her son a present for his eighth birthday; cruelly he refuses. Bepi invites her to his rented flat so she can call home and later takes her fishing. She shows him photos of her son and her dad. In letters to her son she explains that the word 'lagoon’ in Italian is female, calm and mysterious, while 'sea’ is male and restless.

As they grow closer, she is warned by her roommate that their Chinese bosses don’t allow them to socialise with the locals and doing so could jeopardise her chances of reuniting with her son. 'I’ll be careful, don’t worry," she responds.

On the other side of the coin, Bepi’s friends and other patrons gossip and gripe about what they believe is an affair and they mock Shun Li’s nationality. One guy is overtly racist, railing against the Chinese 'invasion" and the rise of a 'new empire".

Friction over the relationship reaches boiling point, one of the few melodramatic moments in a narrative which is otherwise restrained in tone and seductively engaging. The performances by the two leads are splendid, Zhao imbuing her character with a quiet, softly-spoken dignity and sincerity as well as melancholy, balanced by Å erbedžija’s kindness and empathy.

Fittingly, Zhao, who had to master Italian for the role and had not worked outside her homeland, won best actress at Italy’s 2012 David di Donatello Awards, The film garnered the 2011 London Film Festival’s Satyajit Ray Award given to the director whose first feature 'best captures the artistry expressed in Ray’s own vision".

The cinematography by Luca Bigazzi is a thing of beauty, a visual form of poetry as his camera pans across the lagoon, the snowy mountains that surround it and a fishermen’s hut in the middle of the sea, alternating with close-ups of two strangers who form a fragile bond.