Shot in twelve days for less than the cost of the Nissan 350Z driven in the film, Citizen Jia Li is an Asian film set in Melbourne, Australia, featuring a young cast including Chris Pang, winner of the Best Actor accolade at Asians On Film 2013. It's the debut feature for writer, director and producer, Sky Crompton, but is three days in the life of a gangster, a Harajuka girl and a hairdresser a cut above the rest?
Talented hairdresser Jia Li (Claudia Teh) is looking forward to her brother joining her from China. But when she loses both her job and home in one day, nothing is what she had originally hoped for after leaving home to make a fresh start in Melbourne, Australia.
Over three days she will struggle against fears and enemies to find her true identity, supported by Daisy (Susanna Qian), who is trying to come to terms with her own mixed parentage. A lovesick Kong (Chris Pang) isn’t helping matters, as he searches Melbourne to force Jia back into his life and save face with the Triad, one of the many branches of Chinese transnational crime organizations…
Whatever you take from Citizen Jia Li, you cannot argue that the opening five minutes is a pretty good advert for Melbourne. Coming across as a tourist guide rather than the opening to a film, Crompton’s movie doesn’t rush into the trivialities of plot or inciting incidents. In fact, the film, despite its short running time, doesn’t rush at all. That’s not to say its pedestrian; there’s plenty going on here to keep the viewer interested.
Jia Li’s story is supposed to take precedence, but it’s Kong who stands out from this odd threesome. Li has landed in Australia to create a foundation for her family to start a new life. Considering how far she has come at the start of the film, it’s surprising to see just how feeble she actually is. This is a girl who has given up everything – friends, family, and a career – for one unselfish goal. But her plans to get a house, her brother a job, before bringing her parents over, are swiftly taken from her when she refuses to go “off the books” at the salon where she works, ultimately costing her a job and home in one fell swoop.
Whatever doesn’t kill you should make you stronger, but Li becomes more and more fragile as time goes on, reaching a point that will leave the viewer frustrated by her inability to grow a pair and stop being so miserable all of the time. She certainly doesn’t come across as a doer, capable of travelling so far to start afresh.
Her friend Daisy, meanwhile, wears unnaturalness well, being introduced as some form of mute before we realise that she’ll only speak English when she learns how to speak it properly, and then she hopes to become a singer. Now there’s a story… The twosome share a peculiar friendship, sometimes cute – the trying on clothes scene is one of the sweetest – but perfectly unbleached, unlike Daisy’s hair. When they are together we have an extremely watchable movie, but whenever Kong arrives on screen the plot loses its way and becomes muddled.
Ladies and gentlemen, we give you... KONG! The eighth wonder of the world. Or just a lovesick hoodlum. It doesn’t help that Li and Kong’s relationship is puzzling at best. He doesn’t deny that she is just a “cheap little screw” to his cohorts, but doesn’t explain why he’s so besotted with her when she finally cuts him loose. With his money and looks, Kong could probably find a more suitable replacement; someone who isn’t so woeful and tortured all of the time. Or he could opt for Daisy. At least she’s a cheap date. Her favourite place in Melbourne is a tennis court. Kong’s job, a debt collector for mysterious gangsters, is what keeps the story moving, giving the film a darker edge you pray will pay off, even if it sits slightly out of place.
Crompton films a few scenes with imagination – there are some unusual close-ups during dialogue exchanges that somehow work despite not focusing on the characters’ mouths – and does well considering how little budget he has to work with, helped by leads that justify their nominations with some impressive performances. Sadly, the plot is a little threadbare, and come the final third we have nothing to get excited about as we wait for the obvious reunion between our jilted lover and his down in the mouth old flame.
The drawn-out wait means we are forced to endure two Australians moving from the neighbouring apartment, but they add little other than a helpful, “She moved out yesterday so she may not be in” line to Kong when he finally comes a calling. There’s also an irritating employee who keeps winding up Kong by stating in no uncertain terms that Li is a cut-rate jezebel, while characters convey their feelings by talking to themselves, and an implausible hair salon manager sacks her best hand when she has already struck a deal with a gangster forbidding her to do so.
It all leads to a disappointing climax as our defeatist is forced to face up to her desperado in a no-holds-barred battle to the death on top of the dome of the Empire State Building, where they fight off a flight of six Curtiss Falcon fighter planes sent to attack them. Or, perhaps, Kong could prove even softer than the giant ape smitten by a 1930s actress. Which would you prefer?
Enjoyable thanks to some charming performances from our three leads, this light and breezy drama needs a bit more grit to make it a truly satisfying journey. Considering its premise, Citizen Jia Li is a bit like taking a photograph of Cameron Diaz from The Mask into the hairdressers but coming out looking like her character Sara in My Sister’s Keeper; it promised much but the outcome is barren at best. DW