In Merry Christmas, Yiwu one of the characters cracks a joke about child labour. The fact that the one making the joke is a Chinese woman, working at a factory producing goods for the West, gives it an even more wry taste.
It is also typical of the approach of director Mladen Kovacevic who homes in on the Chinese city of Yiwu which houses over six hundred factories, each and every one dedicated to fabricating Christmas decorations which will, undoubtedly, as the holiday is hardly celebrated in China, be exported to the rest of the world.
Kovacevic has an eye both for the mundane and the absurd, which happily co-exist in this bizarre place. In the blistering heat people are glueing pompoms onto Christmas hats, dipping coloured balls into glitter, checking Christmas tree lights and assembling Santas and reindeers.
The workers are chatting, singing, gossiping, falling in and out of love. They come from all over China to make good money and enjoy the city life, to the envy of the relatives back home.
Life in this peculiar place is documented by Kovacevic with good humour and respect for his protagonists. He follows some of the workers and the owners of one particular factory, showing the day to day life inside and outside the factory, neither commenting not asking.
He manages to get really close to his subjects, making us part of their intimate conversations, preparations for food and telephone calls to parents. He captures touching moments of love and heartbreak and the comradeship between the workers who consider their colleagues more family than the ones they left behind.
The director has withstood the temptation of turning his film into an absurd picture of a surreal environment. Instead he focuses on the normality of it all: everyone eats, drinks, has fun, worries, fights and complains, just like every other worker in every other factory.
He doesn’t need to spell out the message that hides in plain sight: globalism has turned our world into a mad place, where people travel thousands of miles and leave behind their loved ones in order to provide for themselves. A place where eastern workers facilitate a western dream, based on the same neo-liberal principles which have brought the factories there in the first place.
And with the money they earn they buy into that same western dream of materialism. Meanwhile, they still cherish their own traditions as they prepare for Chinese New Year, which conveniently follows the mad rush of the Christian holidays.
After watching this, Christmas will never be the same.