Go Away Mr Tumour
China (2015) Dir. Han Yan
It probably seems insensitive to make a comedy about succumbing to a terminal illness but as with many touchy subjects, it is how you do it that matters. In this instance, the screenplay is based on a popular web comic by artist Xiong Dun which documents her fight against cancer, making the humour is an intrinsic part of that approach.
On her 29th birthday comic book artist Xiong Dun (Bai Baihe) looks at the achievements of others at that age – Spielberg, Jobs, Murakami – and decides to make her mark before she turns 30. Then she has a day from hell, when she loses her job, discovers her boyfriend (Shen Teng) is cheating on her and after her birthday party she collapses at home.
Xiong awakens in hospital, treated by the stoic but dishy Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu), about whom she daydreams while waiting for her test results. With the support of her close friends – androgynous female boxer Lao Zheng (Cheng Yi), effeminate male colleague Xiaoxia (Liu Ruilin) and over worked roommate Emmy (Zhang Zixuan) – Xiong remains optimistic even when the diagnosis is confirmed.
In China the web comic made the real Xiong Dun into a celebrity as the infectious and positive outlook in her works detailing her final months amused and tugged at the heartstrings of a nation. Han Yan’s film is an admitted part fictionalised retelling of Dun’s story but it’s not difficult to read between the lines to see how strong Dun was in facing her mortality with such grace and good humour.
For most of the first half and recurring again in the second half the focus is on the humour, which flits between the quirky and the utterly outlandish. Director Han Yan is clearly a fan of Stephen Chow and Edgar Wright, with the quick edit, CGI heavy mashing of images and genres within each mini skit that represents Xiong’s fantasy musings a palpable blend of these visually challenging directors.
Coupled with Xiong’s almost defiantly perky disposition and gregarious personality, and the vibrant colour palette, the notion of this film turning into a tissue drenching weepy seems quite a distance away. Even after the diagnosis is finally given – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the comedy doesn’t end but it is toned down to give appropriate weight to the emotional drama that unfolds.
Typical of her upbeat attitude, Xiong’s response to her diagnosis is “it’s a tumour, they can just cut it out”. Of course she isn’t that naive but Xiong wants to be strong for her friends and her parents (Li Jianyi and Liu Lili), having learned some humility from Mao Dou (Li Jinchen), a young boy suffering from Leukaemia sharing her room. The adorable youngster’s pragmatic attitude rubs off Xiong, holding her in good stead for when her cancer takes hold.
With Xiong learning something from young Mao, we have a “pay it forward” situation manifesting itself in the relationship between Xiong and Dr. Liang. Being an all business type of guy, he rarely smiles and his colleagues and underlings are all scared of him, which he is mortified to learn. But he predictably warms to Xiong and begins to lighten up, although medical ethics prevent him from acting upon his impulses, much to Xiong’s disappointment.
If lachrymose melodrama isn’t your thing then the broad strokes of the outrageous comedy or the fantasy-laden daydreams will provide suitable distraction. Xiong is a big fan of the US TV show The Walking Dead and zombies appear in her visions as a metaphor for her illness. In an early dream Xiong goes full zombie hunter mode and fights off hordes of the undead with her dual handguns and martial arts moves.
Later on – and this is a mini-spoiler of sorts – a much sicker Xiong arrests and while Liang tries to resuscitate her, we see the fantasy vision Xiong being overpowered by a zombie which is slowly choking the life out of her. This might sound ridiculous but it fits in with Xiong’s highly creative imagination and if it helps to get the message across to some people then why not?
Xiong’s indomitable strength and bravery is not the sole focus here – the importance of having equally strong and devoted friends to share the journey with you is just as much a primary facet. While their personal lives do fade into the background, Xiong’s mates are always on hand to offer support and in a moment of bold solidarity they all shave their heads when Xiong’s hair starts to go!
Writers Zhang Weizhong and Yuan Yuan – in addition to Xiong Dun’s original work – pack a lot into the script, perhaps a little too much as two hours does feel a stretch for what ultimately is a tragic story, even if the tone is primarily upbeat. The medical aspect isn’t scrimped on but it isn’t forced into the script either – Xiong is such an endearing characters that the drama can remain implicit and we still feel for her.
Because it is played for laughs then gets serious later, judging the performances isn’t so straightforward but one cannot fault the commitment of lead actress Bai Baihe (who has form in this type of role), capturing the essence of such a bright spark being struck down before her prime yet keeps on smiling. The effervescence of the early going may be replaced by a wan imitation but the spirit is still there.
Xiong Dun passed way aged 30 and while it is shame her legacy is essentially a posthumous one, her story is uplifting and inspirational. Naturally this film adaptation is going to milk certain parts of it over others but it is respectful to Xiong’s memory.
Go Away Mr Tumour’s unique clash of visual styles may suggest this is trivialising such a serious subject but ultimately, there is little excuse not to come away from this film with a bittersweet smile on your face.