After leaving school or university, many young people dream of living it up in the big city. Shanghai is approximately four times as big as London, so presumably you could enjoy four times the excitement, exhilaration and extortion that the British capital has to offer. However, Merry Christmas, written and directed by Yang Kai and based on a short story by Wu Tong, rips apart any preconception of urban glamour. Centred around the isolating experiences of one man as he navigates both a professional and personal minefield, it reveals the anxiety and isolation that so often pervades city living.
The film opens with protagonist Liu Yue perusing exquisite cakes backlit in golden light while Christmas music pipes around him. It’s glossy, seductive and short-lived: cut to a scene where his neighbour shouts at him because his toilet’s overflowed through her ceiling. Those who have lived in a so-called metropolis might recognise the duality of a high-end high street and the derelict space you pay a fortune to live in.
As the story develops, we learn that Liu Yue has moved here for love - his boyfriend, A Xiang, studies at a prestigious university in the city - and has taken an internship in a miscellaneously corporate company where he struggles to fit in. His glamorous boss takes advantage of his desperation to integrate, seducing him in her somewhat more luxurious flat. This scene is fittingly uncomfortable, as Liu Yue’s passivity and covert reluctance does not give the impression of consensual sex. While this plot is less familiar with a woman in the abusing role, it is certainly no less disturbing.
When A Xiang discovers the betrayal, the relationship dramatically ends, a moment made more poignant by the portrayal of small, seemingly insignificant moments of intimacy - watching a film, eating a meal - that make up a relationship. Sometime in the future, we see Liu Yue alone and browsing for a Christmas present for his former lover. It is noticeable that the only interaction he has is with shop assistants, indeed, throughout the whole short his boyfriend is the only person he talks to outside of a relationship formulated by financial exchange, be that at work or out shopping. The final scene shows his complete isolation as he calls A Xiang from an empty tube carriage surrounded by nothing except metal, glass and plastic.
By the end of the film, we still feel like we don’t know Liu Yue very well. Isolated even from the audience, he remains silent throughout the majority of the story and is defined more by those around him than by his own character. While this could arguably be a flaw in the film - we feel we cannot sympathise with him - it actually works well. From the office wallflower to a quiet commuter, he could be anyone we know. He could be you or me.
Showcasing the duality and loneliness of city life, Merry Christmas is a sensitive unmasking of urban life that has been mythologised by films and TV shows countless times.