‘Citizen Jia Li’ is the first feature film of emerging film maker Sky Crompton, featuring a medley of East Asian immigrants living in Australia and the trials and tribulations of their intertwining lives. The story begins in Melbourne, Australia with the title character Jia Li (Chun Kee Claudia Teh), a Chinese hairdresser attempting to raise enough money to bring her family to live with her.
Joined by her is friend and colleague Daisy (Susanna Yusu Qian), a half Chinese – half Japanese Harajuku girl who only communicates via broken vocabulary and a texting computer. Meanwhile ex boyfriend of Jia, Kong (Chris Pang), a Triad gangster, attempts to win Jia back no matter what the consequences.
The film focuses on two important aspects; a look into the life of Jia and her journey towards overcoming the obstacles she faces and the study of the additional main characters and their own troubled lives. The city of Melbourne is filmed well with some beautiful photography and scenery; Crompton succeeds in portraying different sides of the city.
We have the romantic and vibrant side as seen through the hopeful eyes of Jia to the darker and grittier side as seen by Kong. This as a result makes the city and the natives almost seem like another character, providing the backdrop to the lives of our three protagonists.
The film attempts to display Jia’s change from a timid hair dresser with idealistic hopes into a self confident woman taking charge of her life; however the journey is quick and not fully explored. The audience has to be witness to the internal and external change in a character to fully watch them grow, and we see few incidents that force Jia out of her shell.
The only scene which shows an ounce of growth is where Jia stands up to a spiteful ex employee, and the mandatory physical transformation where Jia has a fun albeit clichéd dressing up session with Daisy. Having Jia dress in different outfits and receive the thumbs up or down by Daisy is a staple girly scene which has been done far too much in film.
Nevertheless, we follow Jia as she faces the harsh incidents of unemployment, money issues, a violent ex lover and homelessness. It just would have been nice to see these issues further explored to account for their seriousness.
Kong and Daisy are additional main characters whose stories intertwine with Jia’s. Kong’s personality is displayed as two sides of a coin – he wishes to win Jia back and convinces those around him it is out of love. He is however a ruthless and violent man who also cares about saving face and not taking “no” for an answer.
The audience is split as to whether to sympathise with him or hate him, which saves him from being a stereotypical gangster but instead a troubled man with hidden depth as he does at times seem to care for Jia.
We then come to the highlight of the film: Daisy. Daisy is without a doubt the most fascinating character in the film and this is done well by the technique of show don’t tell. The fact that Daisy does not fully speak in the film and instead relies on wild, childlike gestures and her texting device, show Qian has to work much harder than any actor in the film.
Daisy has the back story of coming to terms with her half Chinese and half Japanese heritage, as well as hinted troubles with her family back in her home country. As a Harajuku girl with a wild sense of fashion and flighty attitude, Daisy provides an effective foil to Jia’s more reserved character and you immediately want to know more about her.
By outwardly appearing without trouble and contented unlike Jia and Kong, you automatically want to know more about her story. Unfortunately the film again fails to delve deeper into Daisy’s life; it would have been nice to find out the outcome of her journey.
As with any other debut film there is room for improvement. ‘Citizen Jia Li’ could have benefitted from fully developing the story of these characters but leaves you wanting more. The dialogue can be a little too scripted and not flow so well to seem realistic, but instead is there to serve exposition for the story. The soundtrack also narrates the story with tracks appropriately placed to match the mood and tone of certain scenes.
‘Citizen Jia Li’ presents some interesting characters and sets up for serious issues to be explored such as immigration and growing as a person. With some more work and tweaking here and there the film could properly develop these issues and characters to fully serve the audience a well rounded film.
That being said, as an independently produced Asian film from Australia and having been shot over 12 days, it is a fine debut by director, writer and producer Sky Crompton.
Review by Husna Anjum