Christmas at the Golden Dragon (2022)

Depending on how you're approaching it, Christmas at the Golden Dragon could alternatively be described as a departure for Hallmark Christmas movies or a fairly by-the-numbers installment. It is, ultimately, a paradox in that respect: it looks and feels like a generic TV movie, but differs from others I've seen both structurally and in several details.

I should pause here to acknowledge I'm not exactly a connoisseur when it comes to these films. While I've seen a somewhat absurd number of theatrically released Christmas movies and more than my fair share of assorted television movies, I'm actually trying to catch up on Hallmark specifically. So take that last paragraph with a grain of salt.

The main way this differs from the usual Hallmark fare is it lacks any kind of central lead or core story. Christmas at the Golden Dragon feels roughly modeled after ensemble films like Love Actually. If anything, this might push the concept a little further, in that Love Actually places a little more emphasis on a story or two. I suspect people might disagree whether the core of Love Actually is the Hugh Grant story, the Emma Thompson one, or even something else, but I think most viewers finish the movie feeling like there was a core of some sort. Christmas at the Golden Dragon didn't leave me with that impression - instead, every story felt like a side story.

This also introduces some complications around synopsizing the plot. When nothing in a movie stands out as significant, in a sense everything is equally important. Compounding the issue, I'm working off my memory here: at the time I'm writing this, there's no Wikipedia page where I can check my work.

I'll start with the titular Golden Dragon, a Chinese restaurant run by an immigrant couple who raised two children in America: Romy and Rick. Romy has a career in marketing and is in a long-term relationship, while Rick is less focused, having dropped out of college and returned to work in the family restaurant.

The parents are driven by a desire to see their children not follow in their footsteps and instead live out their own dreams. They feel bad their business effectively forced the family to forego experiencing a normal Christmas, since their children grew up having to spend Christmas - the busiest day of the year for the only place in town open - working at the restaurant. The family retains this tradition, with Romy starting the movie with an expectation of having to come home to help out at the restaurant, despite an invitation from her boyfriend to spend the holidays at his parents' house in Vermont.

Romy, having always dreamed of experiencing a "perfect Christmas," calls home and is surprised to discover her parents encourage her to go to Vermont. The movie checks back in with her occasionally to poke fun at the notion of a "perfect Christmas," a concept that has only ever existed in Christmas movies and is only invoked for the purpose of deconstructing it. Tonally, this is by far the most comedic plotline in the film, though nearly all the jokes fall flat. That said, there's a sequence where she takes her boyfriend's family caroling that contains quite possibly the funniest moment I've encountered in any Hallmark movie, simply by virtue of showing characters filmed like they're not in a Hallmark Christmas film reacting to ones who are. It's a delightful moment in an otherwise dull film.

Rick, meanwhile, is working at his parents' restaurant in a support capacity. Secretly, he dreams of being a cook, a skill he's actually quite good at. Why is he keeping this ambition from his parents, who are themselves professional cooks? Unclear. Also, he's trying to rekindle a relationship with a Jewish girl who volunteers at the local church, dresses as a Christmas elf, and gives out Christmas presents.

It feels like there should be some comedic potential in there, but I think the writers either forgot they made the character Jewish or are very confused as to what the word means. 

At any rate, the parents decide to close and sell the restaurant, with Christmas Eve planned as the last day so the staff can enjoy the holidays. They do this in part to free up their children's holiday schedules and to push their son into taking control of his own life. But they're also just ready for retirement, and because operating a restaurant was never actually their dream: they just kind of stumbled into it.

That's four of the main characters. There's also Veronica, CFO of a local company that makes... something. She's trying to become pregnant with in vitro fertilization, but it's not working. In addition, she may be starting a relationship with a newly single dad, whose holiday misadventures with his two daughters are another plotline. And Veronica's dealing with the loss of her own father, a famous local coach, who was apparently a good person but - due to his career keeping him away - not the best father in the world (this is yet another example of the movie subverting the standard Hallmark cliches: typically, the dead dad would have been perfect). But if we're talking about Veronica's father, we should also mention her mother, Jane, who's also got her own arc intersecting with various characters. Such as Miguel, who delivers food for the restaurant, helps people around town, and is trying to get a scholarship from Veronica's company so he can pay for one of the many colleges he's been accepted to, such as Princeton. Because either the people who write these movies think we're stupid, or I think they're stupid: if your parents are broke and you get accepted to Princeton, it's kind of a sure thing one of your backup schools is going offer you a full scholarship in the unlikely event Princeton doesn't.

And of course almost everyone knows or interacts with everyone else, so the movie's a web of intersecting plotlines. Ostensibly, they all tie back to the Golden Dragon, but in execution it's less central to the film than you'd expect. We're told the restaurant is important to Veronica and her mom, but concrete connections are flimsy at best. Same goes for most of the characters, in fact. But it's enough for Rick and Romy to pull together and secretly reopen with the help of the regulars for one last Christmas meal, so everyone can gather together one last time.

Romy's boyfriend proposes, but other than that resolutions are in short supply. That's actually to the movie's credit: it sidesteps the typical Hallmark ending where everyone gets what they wanted in favor of something a tad more subdued. Rick decides to follow his high school sweetheart to LA and look for a job as a sous chef, but we don't know how that goes. Veronica doesn't miraculously become pregnant, nor is it even clear she starts dating the single dad. Miguel is told he has a shot at the scholarship, but we don't learn if he actually gets it. The movie is clearly trying to be a little more realistic in the ending, which is certainly preferable to how these things usually go.

Unfortunately, that approach only seems to have dictated the premise. The actual dialogue, design, and direction are more or less interchangeable with other Hallmark productions, giving this the subtlety of a cereal commercial. Which, I should note, it also is, in the form of some blatant product placement from Chex cereal.

The movie's numerous storylines also result in several themes. One of the most prevalent was that it's important to prioritize your own happiness and dreams, even at the expense of family commitments, which is an interesting way to take a Hallmark Christmas movie. The other main theme was a jumbled statement that community is good, which is, if nothing else, more on brand.

Tonally, the movie leans more towards drama than comedy. There are certainly some jokes in this (particularly when we're following Romy), but these are exceptions. The bulk of the dialogue is delivered seriously, and we're expected to connect emotionally with the speakers, taking their heartfelt monologues about what they want from Christmas at face value. And, as is usually the case, it all feels aggressively artificial.

To be clear, the writing in this movie is par for the course for Hallmark, which is a nice way of saying "awful." The characters are not interesting, the dialogue is neither believable nor entertaining, and the emotional beats ring hollow. This isn't a good film - I've encountered very few Hallmark movies I'd bestow that label on.

But, for what it's worth, it at least tries to deviate from a few of the usual tropes. I think the overall premise - centering a Christmas movie around a Chinese restaurant typically used as a joke or setting for a scene - has a lot of merit. And it also deserves credit for offering a bit of representation: this is the rare Hallmark offering featuring a diverse cast. Ideally, Hallmark would find a way to start making these movies good, but barring that, at least they're expanding the kinds of people and stories that get mangled in whatever machinery dictates these come out looking and sounding virtually identical.

I understand Hallmark holiday movies have fans - many, in fact - but I find it extremely hard to connect with them on any level. The characters just don't feel interesting or believable to me: I can make do without one of those criteria in a drama, but when both are missing it's more or less a deal breaker. But, again, this does deviate in several ways from most of the movies in this subgenre, so fans may be pleasantly surprised. And there's no denying these movies look extremely polished and colorful (though you might want to avoid staring too closely at the backgrounds if you want to maintain the illusion these were actually shot in winter). If you love Hallmark Christmas films, my guess is this won't disappoint. But for the rest of us, there's really no reason to bother.


  1. Just to time stamp all this, I'm commenting the same day we published, though I wrote this a while ago and have seen several other Hallmark movies in the meantime... some of which were quite good. Reading back over this, I'd already be a bit nicer to the studio (though not the movie).

    My impression of Hallmark in 2022 is very different today than just a few weeks ago, though that could be the result of a couple abnormally strong examples. Due to the absurd volume these are coming out at, it's hard to get a bead on the company.

  2. Thanks for this review. I'm weighing in as someone who has been watching Hallmark for a while, and as someone who has had a lot of loss in life. This is the first movie I've ever seen on Hallmark to acknowledge disappointment and loss and offer acknowledgement and encouragement in sitting with those hard feelings and still moving ahead. To me, this is revolutionary. I think for those of us with loss who normally feel invisible, as if we are looking through window panes at happy families in real life and in movies, this one invites us in to be part of the world of humans who deserve love and comfort, who deserve to have their stories told and to see role models for dealing with disappointment. I'll also say that I'm feeling an overall increase in quality in Hallmark movies in 2022, which is a great trajectory. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for commenting! It's great hearing this made such an impact, and I agree there seems to be a real increase in quality from Hallmark.


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