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Based on the best-selling novel "The Dismissal", The Missing Star, the latest film by acclaimed Italian director Gianni Amelio, is the story of the growing friendship between an older Italian maintenance man and a young interpreter he hires in Shanghai to be his guide through China. Vincenzo Buonovolonta is the Maintenance Manager at a steel mill in Italy that has been shut down and the blast furnace sold to China. When Vincenzo (Sergio Castellitto) discovers that a control unit in the furnace is defective and potentially dangerous, he travels to China to find the steel mill where the part has been sold in hopes of preventing a fatal accident.
The film, of course, is about the journey not the destination to use a familiar cliché and, on that journey, we are privy to an engaging look at China with all its immense beauty and complexity, via the outstanding cinematography by Luca Bigazzi. The film takes us to Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongquing, Baotou, and a trip along the Yangstze River showing us coastal areas that are scheduled to be flooded when the Three Gorges Dam is fully operative, a Chinese mega-project that has resulted in the displacement of 1.2 million people. The trip brings the travelers face to face with poverty, overcrowded housing, and children left to fend for themselves.
The film revolves around the relationship between Vincenzo and translator Liu Hua (Tai Ling) who first meet in Italy where his impatience with her translations at a dinner meeting causes her to lose her job. When he tracks her down in Shanghai she is working at a library and resistant to Vincenzo's approach. Looking at his offer to help him in his travels in China as little more than a well paying job, she reluctantly agrees to accompany him. Their relationship, however, grows as they move from city to city, her interpretive skills much in evidence to help the bewildered Vincenzo who does not own a cell phone.
As they slowly open up to each other, they expose each other's vulnerability and the film delves into their past and present life and how they arrived at their present situation. We meet Liu's son (Lin Wang) at the home of her grandmother. In China's one child policy, he is one of the unwanted children who have been "hidden" since the father of the boy abandoned the family. Although the meeting between Vincenzo and the boy is casual, their relationship becomes central to how the story plays out.
Castellitto is an excellent actor (though one longs for a younger Enrico Lo Verso in this role). However, he is emotionally distant throughout the film, his expression rarely changing from a far away hangdog expression. Though Tai Ling brings a great deal of presence to the role, her relationship with the much older Vincenzo never seemed real to me and the ending seemed to exist only in a reality known as the movies. Though Amelio is one of my favorite directors, coming on the heels of the brilliant Keys to the House, Missing Star is a disappointment.
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