Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) sells Indian homeopathic oils from a Shanghai storefront. His business is failing, but a last-minute opportunity comes when he is given a lucrative but illegal offer: smuggle Indian medication for chronic myeloid leukaemia into the country and sell it to patients unable to afford the expensive Chinese originals. As local police begin investigating his business, and a rival counterfeiter starts interfering with his trade, Cheng’s get-rich scheme begins to transform into a personal crusade.
Dying to Survive was the surprise Chinese hit of 2018. Released during the annual Hollywood blackout, where the Chinese government blocks the release of American films to give local releases an easier market, it eschews the traditional flood of action and fantasy works in favour of socially conscious comedy-drama. It is also based very loosely on a true story. The genre balance shifts over the course of the film, beginning with character-based comedy and then gradually pulling back the humour and increasing the drama. By the third act, there is hardly a joke to be found, but it does not matter: the audience has been won over and have invested in the emotional stakes. It marks a seismic shift in style for star Xu, widely known as a comedic performer. Like many comedic actors, Zheng turns out to be just as gifted with serious material.
Impressively, the film is also the feature debut of up-and-coming filmmaker Wen Muye. He brings a tremendous sense of balance. Funny scenes do not overpower the darker moments, and likewise the drama never pulls too far away from another joke or amusing moment. In the film’s tenser moments – and it has several – Wen demonstrates a deft hand at showcasing action and generating tension. The film’s photography varies, shifting from hand-held to static camera work based on the individual needs of the scene. Overall it feels rather reminiscent of British director Danny Boyle, another filmmaker with a deft hand and balancing and combining genres with a contemporary and dynamic visual aesthetic. As a first feature it is an admirable achievement, and marks Wen as a hugely promising talent to watch.
Wen creates a populist film in the most positive sense: Dying to Survive is easy with which to engage, but maintains complexity and character depth to satisfy more critical viewers. A talented ensemble cast gives every type of viewer their own particular kind of character to love the most. Particularly strong are Wang Chuanjun as Lu Shouyi, a critically ill patient desperate to stay alive for his infant son, and Zhang Yu as “Yellow Hair”, a rebellious young runaway who has also been struck by leukaemia. In both cases the characters combine comedy and drama, often in unexpected moments.
The film is critical of the Chinese government, which is something unexpected in a local summer blockbuster. Cheng successfully sells the Indian cancer drug because its street value is significantly cheaper than the legal Chinese version, despite being chemically identical. An inflexible Chinese police department declares his imported version counterfeit anyway, disregarding the fact that it is equally effective in treating the disease as the genuine article. People in the film are seen to die because they cannot afford the government-enforced and expensive version, and this in turn makes the government seem unhelpful, bureaucratic, and callous. It is only a last-minute series of captions at the film’s conclusion that makes any significant attempt to paint the authorities as helpful or humane in any way. The patriotic, near-propagandist tone of many Chinese dramas is absent here, and it comes perilously close to directly pointing fingers. It is to the film’s credit that it risks this approach: it creates a comedy that matters. It is a comedy that invites laughter. It is a drama that inspires sorrow. It is a political statement that provokes rage.