Unless you have been living on Mars for the last 6 months, chances are you’ve heard about the Chinese box office sensation “Dying to Survive”. This debut feature by little-known young director Wen Muye has grossed $200 million in the opening weekend only, even being surprisingly different from any recent Chinese mainstream propagandist blockbusters; “Operation Red Sea” to mention one. So far, the movie has bagged many nominations and awards in events around the World like The Golden Horse Film Festival, China Film Critics Association Award, Shanghai Film Critics Awards, Montréal World Film Festival, and the very recent Asian Film Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards.
Produced (and performed) by Chinese star Xu Zheng in collaboration with his regular partner Ning Hao (“Breakup Buddies”, “No Man’s Land”), “Dying to Survive” is based on the true story of Lu Yong, a chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patient who made the headlines for importing a counterfeit and cheaper Indian version of Glivec, the main drug for CML treatment, that was sold in China at a prohibitive cost and not covered by the health care service.
In this fictional version of “Dying to Survive” Lu Yong character is called Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) and is not a CML patient but a struggling, chain-smoker divorcee, running a little shop of dubious Indian oils and health supplements. His ex-wife is battling to get full custody of their 9-year old son and go to live abroad, and Cheng needs money, but his shop is not exactly what you would call a gold mine. One day, a man called Lv Shouyi (Wang Chuanjun) approaches him and offers him money to go to India and smuggle back a certain medicine for him. He is very sick, and he swears the Indian medicine is equally effective of the legal one, but at a fraction of the Chinese price. Cheng refuses at first, knowing that “fake” drug trafficking is an extremely danger zone, but later, when his elder father is in need of a life-saving operation, the financial urgency overtakes his righteousness.
When back from his smuggling trip, Cheng realizes how many patients are eager to buy the cancer drug at a more realistic price and almost overnight the little operation becomes a highly profitable business for Cheng and the improbable gang he put together to help him manage the traffic, composed by Lv, Priest Liu (Yang Xinming) who he firstly employs as English translator, big-hearted scruffy youngster “Yellow Hair” (Zhang Yu) and pole dancer Liu Sihui (Tan Zhuo), not a patient herself but the mum of a little one.
But it’s all too easy and too quick for Cheng and he doesn’t know that other people had the same idea before him and that the police is observing the illicit traffic to bust the masterminds of it.
The film is split in two distinct parts, separated by a time interval and pervaded by very different moods. The first one that act as a prologue is brush and comedic, full of energy, gags, laughs (subject matter allowing!) and even a hilarious brawl where also the timeless Chinese weapon – the foldable chair – makes a glorious appearance. But, like in every good Chinese movie, actions have consequences and the second part deals with those and the emotional toll of such actions. A more mature Cheng will exchange greed for empathy and will be made personally responsible for it.
Watching “Dying to Survive” it’s not difficult to understand the reasons behind its popularity. It is – hands up – an impeccable film. Measure is the word here, as it is a perfect blend of just the right amount of all the ingredients for success. It has a very balanced ratio of laughters and tears, an extremely relatable protagonist and a rather satisfying (and real) revenge of the underdogs. All in all, despite the very sad and heavy topic, it’s a proper feel-good story that avoids plunging into cheesy populism.
Yet populist it is indeed but nevertheless since “real” Liu’s arrest, the government has relaxed policies on cancer drug imports and allowed Glivec prescriptions under national health and – moreover – after the release of the film China has included 17 more life-saving cancer drugs in its national public insurance. Stories like this give us hope and make us want to fight to the end! In fact – to the surprise of many – “Dying to Survive” has challenged the heavy Chinese censorship with a story that “dares” criticizing the institutions and succeeded even if, in reality, this is a perfect comrade story and considering the outcome, China doesn’t come out too bad.
Other than the exceptional story, it is Xu Zheng’s great merit to carry the whole film on his shoulders with absolute professionalism; his Cheng is no superhero but an all-round ordinary man, with great humanity but also imperfections and a bag of wrong choices that make him “one of us”. The rest of the cast is terrific too and they have plenty of time to develop and progress in the unfolding, much like direction, cinematography and editing that together evolve from an initial action/heist rhythm to a somber realism towards the end.
At 2-hour running time, “Dying to Survive” is fluent, gripping and well balanced; a very mature debut for Wen Muye who has already announced further collaborations with Xu Zheng.