In America, we know that significant change has occurred in China since the days of Tiananmen Square. There’s rich people, capitalism, and a mountain of US debt owed to the mainland. We even get to meet people who have achieved a Chinese dream of sorts and tell us the tales firsthand. They are educated, successful, and have the freedom to travel back and forth. This is called progress. But the dictatorship still rules, and despite the tip of the iceberg that is the new China, much is left obscured.
Like the industrial smog that dims cities, man made cover concentrates oligarchic wealth, while dreams of desperation are fueled among the minions. Chuyao He takes on the commonplace underbelly in her short film, Before Christmas.
Factory Life in the Big City
Our introduction to the rural family making the leap leaves this trio dwarfed by the city’s soulless expanse. As if they’ve grabbed a few things from their previous life and suddenly transported, they traverse their urban beginnings as though no better than uninvited guests.
Their new domicile isn't much of a destination either, and the disdain the factory boss initially emotes is simply a prelude. “In here, your number is your name,” the boss lays out the designation.
The actual impetus for the filmmaker was more personal. “The original idea came from photographs by a Chinese photojournalist. He went to several Christmas decoration factories in China and photographed images of the workers. I saw the potential for creating a script based on that, and then I contacted the photographer for the copyright. That was how everything began,” said He.
Dreams of the Father and Son
Nonetheless, there is a generation gap, and the dreams of the elder are more associated with simply surviving. His son, on the other hand, always has the possibilities on the tip of his tongue. “Nothing could ever stand between you and the free land,” the teenager has his needle stuck on the hymn.
He won't let reality get in the way of his dreams either. Life experience can’t tell him otherwise—despite the work conditions he and his father endure. “Put down the drink and get to work.” The factory boss freely doles out the dehumanization.
Still, 1,000 such words aren’t as nearly effective as a picture. “The location was the most challenging part in the pre-production. We went to more than ten Christmas decoration factories, and no one offered us the permission to shoot in those places. The owners were afraid that we were from the government, and we would expose the poor working conditions there,” said the Brooklyn resident.
As it turned out, He was able to punch the clock in the nick of time. “We found the location a day before the shooting. Mostly because the factory owner was a friend of our production manager,” she said.
Real Life Meets the Movie
Real life then merged perfectly and had the actual workers (and their routines) doubling as extras. “That’s why they were preparing the stockings so naturally in the scene. They brought the movie to another level of realism,” said He.
The on location shooting, professional directing, and heartfelt acting made the far off drama seem quite close to home. In fact, the filmmaker knew she was on the right track after a recent screening in New Jersey. “An African American woman approached me and said the movie reminded her of enduring child labor during the 60s,” said the Chinese native.
So obviously exploitive labor is a worldwide problem, and the veil can always be lifted in her estimation. “The power of cinema can raise public awareness on the issues of working-class labor—especially in regards to children,” she said.
Dreams persist nonetheless and obviously come true sometimes. Unfortunately, the facts more often bear out. “Those teenagers who work in factories may have their dreams. But because of their backgrounds, they really don’t have any other option than factory work,” she says.
In this case, the boy is as likely for a Hollywood ending as any of us, and He definitively captures the heartbreak in her film.