In Chuyao He’s short film about the lives of Chinese factory workers, we see the world through the eyes of a teenager who yearns to become a musical performer but can’t quite find his way in life. Our first glimpse of 18-year-old Xiao Lee and his parents as they wander a busy YongKang throughway includes a slogan painted on a stark white wall, “China, My Dream,” hovering behind them. It’s the first unsettling clue that we’re in for an unvarnished look at life under the country’s new order.
“The film was inspired by a photograph taken by Chinese photojournalist Chen Ronghui.”
The director is a skillful storyteller who allows us only as many details as are necessary to describe the texture of life and the drudgery that the family endures. While the city’s gleaming skyscrapers seem to proclaim the victory of capitalism over communist doctrine, the riches some enjoy have yet to trickle down to Xiao and his parents.
Overall, the film’s tone is as morose as each of its character, except for Xiao’s mother, who injects the only ray of sunshine in their gloomy day to day life.
Xiao and his parents live in a cramped apartment. Goaded by his father, Lao, he reluctantly takes a factory job at the same sweatshop where Lao works. The factory, run by an authoritarian overseer, makes Christmas decorations. Ironically, Xiao had never heard of Christmas prior to taking his new job, which underlines astonishing case of cultural isolation.
“…gleaming skyscrapers seem to proclaim the victory of capitalism over communist doctrine.”
The film was inspired by a photograph taken by Chinese photojournalist Chen Ronghui that documented Christmas decoration factories in the small town of Yiwu, China, where the lion’s share of Christmas decorations is made for countries in the West.
It’s blunt cinematography — the camera often seems like a secret observer hiding in doorways or behind detritus — and the actors’ unaffected performances help make Before Christmas a brief but memorable portrait of those whose lives are a day-by-day struggle.
Before Christmas (2016) Directed by Chuyao He. Written by Chuyao He. Starring, Jianchun Hao, Deyang Hou, Xiao Lee, Chengliang Li, Xianyuan Zhu.
8 out of 10