The actor shines as the silly season fanatic whose name is – wait for it – Santa. Forget about Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding, this is why Michelle Yeoh is the true star of this holiday-themed romantic comedy.
Warning: this story contains mild spoilers for Last Christmas.
What you need to know about the Christmas shop in Last Christmas is that it gives extra a bad name.
There are more fairylights than a teenage girl’s pinterest board, enough tinsel to deck the halls of, oh, Buckingham Palace. The most popular item in the shop is a weird Christmas monkey – it comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours – that shrieks Christmas carols at the press of a button. The shop is a plastic fantastic, glitter-explosion extravaganza so full of absolute tat that anyone lighting a flame within a three mile radius of the store should be concerned about setting the whole thing alight.
Presiding over this weird and wonderful cave of sap is Michelle Yeoh. Her character wears a rotating roster of feather-trimmed cheongsams – the traditional dress of Chinese women – in jewel box colours, with matching gobstopper chandelier earrings. Her name is Santa. That was the name she gave to herself, it was given to her by her. She changes her name with each business she runs, you see. When she worked in a pet shop, her name was Kitty. In a health store, her name was Miso. She did this because nobody could pronounce her real Chinese name. Such is the lot of the immigrant woman.
Yes, Kate (Emilia Clarke) is the ostensible protagonist of Last Christmas. It’s in Kate’s delirious, wine-sodden company that we spend the most time. It’s Kate’s anxieties and ambitions that we know so intimately. But it’s Santa who, by the end of this movie, we feel the most connected to. It’s Yeoh who is the true, secret star of the film.
Right now, as we speak, Last Christmas is being beset by negative reviews (some of which director Paul Feig has responded to on Twitter). Without wading into that particular gravy boat, here’s a brief rundown of the plot of the film. After a Christmas spent in hospital because of a terrifying health scare, Kate’s mother Adelia (Emma Thompson, also the writer of the film) expects her daughter to have a new lease on life.
But her hospitalisation has had the reverse effect: Kate’s too busy boozing, scoffing burgers and sleeping around to care about the world around her. She spends her depressing days working at Santa’s Christmas shop in Covent Garden, and her nights looking for someone to stay warm with. Her big dream – to break into the West End – seems impossible after she blows audition after audition in her perennially hungover state.
Enter, stage left: Tom (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding), a very handsome and even more mysterious stranger, who wants to bring the light back into Kate’s life. Tom is a millennial man like no millennial man you’ve ever met in your life. He loves to dance in the street (alarm bells are ringing) and doesn’t have any social media (the bell, it tolls for thee). He is such a nice man. He volunteers at a homeless shelter. His apartment is spotless. When Kate tries to seduce him into bed, he tucks her in wordlessly and sings her a lullaby. He’s so phenomenally, extraordinarily too good to be true that he, honestly, could only be played by an actor who looks like Golding.
There’s a big twist coming of course, one that if you have even a passing, drunken familiarity with the lyrics of Last Christmas you will see coming a mile away. But who cares about wild, mildly supernatural endings when you can have Michelle Yeoh as a woman named Santa, instead?
This role could have been nothing more than a stern-faced punchline to a movie-length joke. Santa is a taskmaster, who runs her Christmas boutique with the efficiency of a Naval captain. She expects a lot from Kate and isn’t afraid to tell her off. Like Yeoh’s Crazy Rich Asians character Eleanor Young, in another actor’s hands the role could have melted into ‘dragon lady’ cliché.
But, thanks to Yeoh’s performance, Santa – like Eleanor Young before her – is capable of great empathy. Throughout the film she offers Kate second, third, fourth and fifth chances, encouraging her to repair her broken life. Kate’s emotional fulcrum point only happens after an incident at the Christmas shop that leaves Santa with no choice but to severely reprimand her elf. She doesn’t do it to score points or for the thrill of a blistering put-down. Santa does it because she loves Kate, and she wants her to wake up from her gin-soaked, self-obsessed stupor. For Santa, an immigrant who has worked hard all her life in order to earn enough money to open her own business, such a wake-up call is vital.
Yeoh has spoken in interviews about Santa’s motivations in the film, explaining that “she’s determined to be successful and do whatever it takes”. The actor added that, in consultation with Last Christmas’ costume designer, Santa’s outfits were tailored by “a very dear friend from Taiwan” called Madam Wang, whose brand is called Shiatzy Chen.
“Santa is proud of who she is,” Yeoh explained to Go Movies. “She’s not trying to forget her own culture, her ethnicity. She does want to blend in, but she doesn’t want to forget who she is. So she tries to bring it all together… The most important thing for Santa is her shop. It’s one of the most beautiful in the world. I mean, she will not allow the store to overshadow her. After all, she is the boss! So it becomes her stage. Every day when she walks on is like a statement before she loves being there.”
There’s a lot of depth in Yeoh’s performance as a woman who not only wholeheartedly adopted the traditions of her new country but makes her living from them, too. Yeoh’s fabulous outfits, feather-trimmed and cashmere-soft and elegant to a fault, are the perfect counterpoint to Kate’s mismatched wardrobe.
Santa even gets a romance of her own, when a handsome Germanic stranger (Peter Mygind) walks into her shop and immediately falls in love… with that hideous monkey Christmas ornament. He also “knows a lot about sauerkraut”, and keeps bringing Santa sauerkraut-themed gifts. “I now must pretend to like raw cabbage,” Santa says, deadpan.
Watching Yeoh and Mygind together feels like watching all the darlings that were killed from another, very different movie. It’s here that you get the most sense of Feig’s ability as a director to both blow up the balloon and stick a pin in it, mercilessly. Remember, this is the man who very fondly made fun of, while simultaneously glorifying, Jason Statham in Spy and Blake Lively in A Simple Favour. He’s the perfect person to make a Christmas movie that also knows how ridiculous Christmas movies are.
Their romance is weird and wonderful, two mysterious and glamorous and very tall people brought together by nothing more or less remarkable than their love of Christmas. Now, that’s a romantic comedy we’d like to see.
Last Christmas is in cinemas in the US now and in the UK on 15 November.
Images: Universal, Getty
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.