Could you survive a Christmas holiday season without any products made in China? As far as opening conceits go, Xmas Without China offers its audience a compelling quandary. Following this premise, one might imagine a film that lives up to the honored tradition of documentary satire, in which a personal story is used to humanize a political argument. In some ways, Alicia Dwyer’s Xmas Without China begins in just such a way, yet by its end the actual politics involved have become irrelevant. Instead, the story finds legs with its portrait of two families interconnected by an argument no one much cares for anymore as Christmas approaches. The politics may have been left wayside, but the personal element thrives and soon the film simply documents how both Xia and Jones households, separated by disparate cultures, seek the warmth of kinship in the cold month of December.
The political environment of the film originates way back in 2007, during which time the United States implemented a massive recall of Chinese toys, due to excessive levels of lead found in the products. In the same year, the New York Times published an article stating “the number of products in China that are being recalled in the United States…has doubled in the last five years.” This marked increase provoked a public outcry against all things Chinese, and our dependency was blasted on punditry news shows and talk radio, deriding the foreign country in the process. Xmas Without China‘s protagonist, Tom Xia, begins the film with a personal interview explaining that the barrage of negative public opinion manifested itself as a personal attack against him. Tom moved with his family from China to the states when he was eight years old. Still a Chinese citizen, he informs the camera that he visits the country once every year to see the rest of his family. He goes on to say that it may be easy to talk down on China, but insists that no one could really live here without the country. A stratagem then forms, to find a family who holds these views willing to go without Chinese products until after Christmas day, and a merry chase goes on from there.
With the Jones family, Tom finds the ideal American household. Tim and Evelyn Jones have money enough, but still struggle to get by as many in the middle class do. They love their children a great deal, and speak with honest concern for their safety when they worry about bringing toys in from China. Tim has a strangled sort of pride in his country, tied up in the loss of his father during service in the Air Force, and so most of the film’s contention now lies with him. However, beyond his asking Tom whether he is an American citizen, and Tom feeling the sudden need to lie, most of the film’s conflict comes from the family trying to make their budget for Christmas under this new ban. Adding insult to injury, the Joneses come home to a house lit with candles, since their light bulbs are now forbidden, pass their days without television or computer alike, and try to keep the season filled with cheer for their children.
The strain begins to weigh on them, particularly with Tim who associates this time of year with family loss. He tries to combat the loneliness by wrangling together some festive Christmas familiarity, spending nearly two hundred dollars on manmade tree lights, using products imported from Mexico. With Tom’s family, his father has moved from China to make a great success of his life in the US. Now, he remodels his home and tries to build a towering Christmas tree in his front lawn. And yet, a telling scene with Tom and his mother, watching old videos of family still left in China, casts the new house in a strange light. Tom’s mother remarks that, watching her father, it is like he is with her and not thousands of miles away. Tom then wonders aloud how the large house feels so empty.
Ultimately, the film’s opening gimmick serves as a catalyst and little else. The Jones family finds a way of living a more simple life, not so absorbed in technology, and yet when Tim cheats and plays his Xbox for a day, the waning integrity of his agreement does not feel so important. The same could be said when Evelyn breaks down on Christmas Eve and buys blacklisted stockings for her children. For Tom’s part, his relationship with the Jones family becomes more intimate as the film goes on. He joins them in church services and plays with the children, speaks to Tim and Evelyn sincerely of his Chinese heritage, and brings them to meet his own parents. During this meeting, Tim receives an acupuncture treatment from Tom’s father, and both Joneses accept a Christmas gift ironically made in China. More importantly though, as the film goes on Tom is able to recognize and articulate that his pride of home country is rooted in a love for his family.
Xmas Without China runs a little over an hour, a luxury that only festival films can really afford, and never outstays its welcome or feels in any way underdeveloped. During this runtime, the film carefully side steps the political ramifications of its subject matter, and studies how two different cultures experience the same holiday. In the end, the differences between these cultures benefit from an intimate point of view, because ultimately love needs little translation. The families may express their love in different ways, but the look of it is the same. And if anything can break down the barriers to understanding, love and family are surely it. Placed next to that, of course the politics are irrelevant.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.