Citizen Jia Li is the feature film debut by Sky Compton, and portrays three days in the life of Jia Li. Jia Li (Claudia Teh) is a Chinese Immigrant living in Melbourne, where she works off the books as a hairdresser and lives in a run-down apartment block, preparing for her twin brother and parents to join her for a new life in Australia. It is ironic therefore that on the day that she receives official notification of her citizenship, she loses not just her job but her home. With nowhere to go, Jia Li moves in with Daisy (Susanna Qian), a would-be rock goddess who struggles with her Chinese/Japanese mixed heritage, who she worked with at the hairdressers before being sacked for refusing to continue to work cash in hand. Complicating this slice-of-life is the tangential narrative of Kong (Chris Pang), gangster who works for some nameless triad collecting protection money who is in love with Jia Li and cannot come to terms with the fact that she has rejected him. The two narratives interweave – Jia Li’s as she tries to find somewhere to live and Kong’s as he desperately searches for her. Will the two lovers be reunited or will Jia Li strike out for herself as an independent woman?
The premise for Citizen Jia Li is an interesting one, and the acting performances good, but an over-complicated narrative structure and some plot inconsistencies prevent it from realising its potential. While the contrast between Kong’s and Jia Li’s lives as Chinese immigrants is interesting in narrative terms, it comes across as contrived and there is no real substance to their relationship. In addition, I was sidetracked wondering how Jia Li could possibly have enough money to purchase the equipment for the salon that offers her the life that she wants for herself and her family, after all she had not only just lost her job, but she had not been paid for her last week’s work. Yes, this could have been her life savings, but why then can she not find anywhere to live and therefore ends up living with Daisy. In addition, if we are to have sympathy for Daisy’s predicament, then the character would need to be multi-dimensional rather than a perpetually happy and optimistic young woman as she is portrayed. In opposition, Jia Li is permanently pessimistic and passive and while there is a degree of authenticity in Claudia Teh’s performance, she is a particularly irritating protagonist who waits for opportunities to come along rather than taking her destiny into her own hands. Having said this, the friendship between the two young women and their interactions is where the film succeeds the most. It seemed to me that there was a lost opportunity here, as a coming-out story the film would have been much more interesting and provocative, especially when the strength of the film lies in the two women’s relationship.
The problem with Citizen Jia Li is that it is overly ambitious for a low-budget feature; Kong’s narrative weakens the film rather than strengthening it. Trying to deal with the complexity of diasporic Asian-Australian communities – and the different lives of those within the communities – Citizen Jia Li tries to cover too much ground and too many experiences. The concept was a good one, but the execution flawed. If it had concentrated on giving the viewer a snapshot of immigrant life by focalizing the narrative through Jia Li – rather than getting distracted by gangster life – then it would have given the viewer a more convincing portrait of immigrant life in Melbourne. Having said this, Citizen Jia Li is well-worth watching, the cinematography is good for a low-budget film, and the performances sound. It will be interesting to see how the director chooses to follow up his debut, which has had a great deal of success on the film-festival circuit, and demonstrates a degree of proficiency that hint at good things to come.