Dir: Gianni Amelio. It-Fr-Switz. 2006. 107mins.

Gianni Amelio treads waterwith The Missing Star, an anti-hero quest moviethat has moments of emotional engagement but is marred by its genrefence-sitting and the muddiness of its final message. It's one of those filmswhose fascination lies not so much in the drama, whichis structured like a long shaggy-dog story, as in the setting this drama playsout against: contemporary China, filmed in a warts-and-all, near-documentarystyle. To get the most out of The MissingStar, it helps to think of it as a travelogue with attached story.

Amelio has arthouse leverage athome, and distributor 01 can bank on a respectable, though hardly delirious,theatrical run, followed by some pretty downbeat auxiliary revenue.Internationally (the film competed at Venice) Lakeshore International, whichalso sold Amelio's last - the ice-cold weepie The Keys OfThe House - should at least match the fairly modest territorial outreach ofthat title.

Leading Italian leading manSergio Castellitto plays VincenzoBuonavolontà, an asocial but Italian engineer with astrong ethical code that pushes him unwittingly into xenophobia. Buonavolontà (literally "goodwill") works at a steel millin Genoa which is being decommissioned. He doggedly goes on correcting the flawhe has identified in one of the blast furnaces, even though the machinery inquestion is being sold to a delegation from China.

The furnace is dismantledand shipped out before Vincenzo has come up with thevalve which he believes will fix the problem - so he leaves for China,enlisting the help of reluctant interpreter Liu Hua(fresh-faced newcomer Tai Ling) to track down "his" blast furnace and avert apossibly devastating industrial accident.

So begins an odyssey throughthe New China, from the skyscrapers of Shanghai to the desolate wastes of InnerMongolia. The furnace has been sold on by the company that bought it, and anincreasingly sweaty and disoriented Vincenzo chasesfrom lead to lead, based on the scraps of information that he and Liu manage toglean.

The slow thaw of therelationship between Liu and Vincenzo is reasonablywell done, and the journey gradually takes on an allegorical character as theodd couple travel up the fogbound Yangtze river, visiting locations that seemupdates of the topoi of the medieval quest: the Moloch-like steelworks of Wuhan;the Arcadian interlude of Liu's village, Yinchuan;the apartment-block where they spend the night, a vertical city pulsating withraw life; the no-man's-land truckstop where Vincenzo alights to see men digging a huge hole in theground for no apparent reason.

This is all intriguingstuff, but it's also uneven: Amelio never quitedecides whether The Missing Star issupposed to be a docu-drama in the style of In This World or a Quixote-like allegoryabout a redundant man from a redundant culture with antiquated ethical codes -or maybe a cross-border romance, or maybe a road movie.

The shooting style reflectsthis schizophrenia: sometimes Luca Bigazzi'sphotography is handheld, poorly-lit, near-Dogme,sometimes (especially in the village scenes) carefully framed and studio-lit. Eventhe quirky soundtrack has a Jekyll and Hyde nature, veering from classicalclarinet strains to kitsch Chinese pop.

At the same time, though, Vincenzo's character has a complexity that keeps usintrigued: he's suspicious but loyal, stubborn to the point of childishness(he's the sort of guy who says he not hungry, then asks for food when thereisn't any) but also capable of great kindness. This is one of those roles wherethe acting is better than the writing, with Castellitto,whose performances have grown in authority from Don't Move on, lending a depth to the character which is not fullybacked up by anything in the script. Newcomer Tai Ling is effective as anuncomplicated foil to Vincenzo's needless self-torture.

In the end, though, it's theglimpses of a China rarely seen even in local productions that makes The Missing Star worth a look. Recently,only Li Yang's Hitchcockian coalmining thriller Blind Shaft has shown us the industrialunderbelly of the Chinese economic miracle in such messy detail.

Production companies/backers
Rai Cinema
Carac Film
RTSI Televisione Svizzera
Achab Film

International sales
Lakeshore International

Executive producer
Mario Cotone

Riccardo Tozzi
Giovanni Stabilini
Marco Chimenz

Gianni Amelio
Umberto Contarello
inspired by the novel La Dismissione by Ermanno Rea

Luca Bigazzi

Production design
Attilio Viti

Simona Paggi

Franco Piersanti

Main cast
Sergio Castellitto
Tai Ling