Before Christmas (2016)
Director: Chuyao He
Starring: Jianchun Hao, Deyang Hou, Chengliang Li, Xianyuan Zhu.
Plot: A lower class Chinese family moves to a big city for a living. The father and his son Xiao Lee, an 18-year-old teenager who dreams of becoming a singer, begin working hard labour in a Christmas decoration factory. Reluctant to face reality, Xiao Lee decides to make a change to pursue his dream. Tragedy is in store for this young man and his poor family as they become victims of Chinese society.
My first realisation upon finishing ‘Before Christmas’ (2016) was that the fourteen minutes and fifty-six seconds run-time felt like a lot longer, that it was eight-hundred and ninety-six seconds I couldn’t get back. Do you know what I could do in fourteen minutes and fifty-six seconds/eight hundred and ninety-six seconds? I could boil three and a half medium sized eggs. I could read a book or whiten my teeth. I could make salsa. From scratch! All of which would be more pleasurable, and a better use of my time, than watching this film again.
My problem is just a collection of small, niggly things, and one or two big ones. Things, issues, problems that equated to my dislike of the film; I found myself sitting there, waiting for it to be over.
The biggest issue with Before Christmas is the noise. The film features an overpowering, irritating background noise that makes sense in the opening moments wherein the central character Xiao Lee (Deyang Hou) is shown to have just moved to the city and therefore may feel as overwhelmed by the sound as we are invited to do so, but in the next scene a river and the sounds of insects are brought to the same extremes. In their absence, a low buzzing, white noise. So, if not the sound of the city, noise is generated through the sounds of people digging through rubble, footsteps walking down an alley, chairs scraping across the floor, the rain, machinery, even sellotape being used – admittedly, the last one is an educated guess as opposed to an actual fact but that’s due to a lack of clarity; another element of the filmmaking that could have been better.
It was simply irritating and unnecessary. Perhaps it was to cover the general lack of dialogue in the film, but who knows? What I initially thought was a smart move on the director’s part later came off as the crew’s lack of skill to be able to isolate those sounds and remove them, or at least tone them down. Ultimately, it was just too loud, making it hard to concentrate and almost impossible to enjoy the story as it played out.
Moreover, there were several other technical aspects that I wasn’t particularly keen on. Firstly, why were a handful of scenes shot from unusual angles with seemingly little reason for doing so? For example, there’s a scene where Xiao Lee and his father, played by Xianyuan Zhu, initially interview for their job. The scene is shot from outside the door, then cuts to an angle over the interviewer’s head. Later, we see a scene shot from the top of the stairs looking down and, before that, a conversation between two characters as one is shot through the doorway. These aren’t world ending problems, but it was a distraction that seemed to detract from the quality of the film.
The shaky-cam cinematography had the same effect. In some scenes, the camera seemed unstable by accident, and at one point it even cut off the top of a character’s head. Character actions, whether big or small, were followed in what can only be described as an unskilled manner.
My other grievances lie with the story itself. For example, Xiao Lee wasn’t allowed to use the phone in his own house. Why? When working in a factory making Christmas decorations, why has he never actually heard of Christmas? Most importantly in this regard, why wasn’t he fired?
Whilst I am aware that he was working in awful conditions and his heart obviously wasn’t in it, he was still a terrible worker. In his interview, he looked bored, made no effort and kept fidgeting. Whilst actually at work he was constantly pouting, getting distracted, not listening to instructions and, on the occasion he did listen, he took forever to follow them. Even I was yelling at him to hurry up; perhaps because the film had given me no reason to. Given the almost comical levels of misdemeanours he went on to commit in the job, it became almost impossible to believe that he would still have the work, especially if the job was as taxing and awful as indicated.
Admittedly, this was one aspect of the movie that I did like. The director found an excellent way of depicting the almost crushing working conditions, and the toll it was taking upon its workers, in a rather simple way. At the start of their working days we see Xianyuan Zhu’s character sitting on the floor and working on his stockings. As the film goes on and more orders start to come in, more piles appear around him; so many that the manager must ask him to move them out of the way. By the third of fourth shot, with new orders still coming, only his head and shoulders are visible over the mounds of red felt. In the final scene, the screen is overrun with the piles of Christmas stockings and Xianyuan Zhu is nowhere to be seen, but somewhere, behind the mounds, you can still hear him working away. These small scenes were, in my opinion, the best parts of the film as they so cleverly showed the struggles of working in the factory and being swamped and overwhelmed by the hard labour; a point the filmmaker originally set out to bring attention to.
Unfortunately though, this does little to redeem Before Christmas in my eyes, as ultimately, not much happened in this film. We are led to believe that aspiring singer Xiao Lee will make a change to pursue his dream, except this doesn’t happen. Nothing is done in pursuit of his aspirations and he never even expresses that becoming a singer is his actual goal. No changes are made, nor any effort made towards such changes, and this doesn’t feel like art-house commentary, it feels like a lack of clarity in the film’s cinematic language – he pouts through fifteen minutes of screen time. The film ends with no real story, no real resolution and no spark to ignite its purpose in the first place.
In the end, it seems I should have just used those fourteen minutes and fifty-six seconds to make salsa.
You can find out more about ‘Before Christmas’ at the following links: