Debut film by author, director and producer Sky Crompton, Citizen Jia Li is an interesting attempt at alternative storytelling, only really let down by it’s ambition. The film tells the story of Asian immigrants in the midst of Melbourne and their seemingly ordinary lives intertwining.
As the audience meets Jia Li, the camera introduces her life through an intimate approach, exploring her daily morning routine and bringing the viewer rather close. One can almost feel the optimism lingering in the air. The sun is shining and Melbourne is beautiful, and our hero is preparing for yet another happy day, secure in the blissful expectation of bringing her family to Australia and building them a better life. But as is often the case, this sublime paradise comes crashing down as Jia suddenly loses her job and apartment, transforming her from a cheerful foreigner into a desperate stranger, who must fight for survival.
Citizen Jia Li is a bold attempt to delve deep into the issues of immigration and the complexity of being a foreigner in a strange land. This is especially impressive given the financial constraints imposed on the film. Along the journey we meet some interesting characters and complex variations of the ‘face of the immigrant’, but the narrative sometimes feels over complicated and often fails to really nail the subject matter.
The contrast between Jia, Daisy, Kong and Jenny, and their lives in Australia, is clear and well defined – and ultimately this is the most interesting aspect of the film. Yes, there’s the desperate, homeless and jobless girl, hoping to find a better life in another country (a familiar character in the immigration rulebook), but there’s also Daisy, a half-Chinese, half-Japanese girl with a wacky sense of fashion and a peculiar habit of using a texting device until she is fluent enough to speak English. The contrast between these characters is beautiful, as is the contrast between Jia – ordinary, modestly dressed, plain and understated, and her gangster ex Kong – explosive, violent, and fierce, the darker side of Australia.
Sky Crompton works wonders with a camera and builds brilliant juxtapositions without words, between the optimistic sunny side of Melbourne and the dark streets of desperation. He builds intimacy by shooting peculiar close-ups with an air of honesty, and his experimental style is a breath of fresh air. However, the characters are ultimately left unexplored and, where one would expect to find an inspirational story about survival and the resilience of the human spirit, there is but a brush upon the surface of things. This is perhaps not so surprising, considering Citizen Jia Li’s over ambitious attempt at delivering so many complex individuals.
Citizen Jia Li’s strength, perhaps even it’s most important quality, is the beautiful build-up of contrasts between the characters, amplified by the inventive cinematography and the music, which switches between genres depending on which character we’re following. The result is a film that tells the story of it’s characters predominantly through filmmaking tools, rather than an emphasis on script and narrative. This isn’t so much ‘style over substance’ as a filmmaker embracing the actual medium of film to tell their story.
Find out more on the Citizen Jia Li site.