Dying To Survive (Wo bu shi yao shen)

China (2018) Dir. Muye Wen

Corporate greed is one of the biggest threats to society yet is allowed to operate legally and openly without recourse. It’s an anomaly that will never change because the law is usually on the side of the big corporations, allowing them to crush cheaper competition without mercy. Now, imagine this scenario but involving life saving medicine.

In 2002, Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) is in financial turmoil due to a bitter divorce, a sick father, and underperforming aphrodisiac business. He is given an unlikely lifeline when introduced to Lv (Wang Chuanjun), a leukaemia patient who can’t afford medication but has been using a cheaper alternative from India. Cheng is offered the chance to be the Chinese agent for the Indian company and make enough money to end his troubles.

Selling the product is difficult until Lv brings in single mother Liu Sihui (Tan Zhou), with a sick daughter, whose many support group contacts form a distribution network. Sullen youngster Yellow Hair (Zhang Yu) and Christian priest Pastor Liu (Yang Xinmin) join the fold and soon the money starts coming in. But the official drugs company aren’t happy and set about bringing Cheng’s business down.

Amazingly, Dying To Survive is loosely based on the true story of Lu Yong, a leukaemia patient unable to afford legal drugs so he imported cheaper ones from India, and shared with 1000 other sufferers. This would have made Lu a folk hero but to the Chinese authorities, and the greedy drug companies, he was a criminal. Apparently, US film Dallas Buyers Club has a similar plot but I’ve not seen it.

The other amazing fact about Muye Wen’s film is how it got past strict Chinese censors to become a box office hit in 2018 when it is so openly critical of corrupt corporations putting profits before people and the slow moving health service. Early spoiler – Lu’s actions did bring about change and the drugs are now available free under the health care system, making this film more a tacit celebration than a galvanising project.

Lu’s altruism is not immediately reflected in Cheng – he only takes on the risky gig of drug smuggler because he needs the money. It doesn’t help he is doing this under the nose of his police officer ex-brother-in-law Cao Bin (Zhou Yiwei) either. For the moment, the police are not a concern as it takes a while for Cheng’s business to make an impact, and upon seeing the lives he is saving, Cheng becomes less selfish.

For the first hour of the film, things are quite light and play out like a conventional crime caper with the disparate group coming together for a united if illicit cause. Pastor Liu is only in because he can speak English but also wants to help his sick parishioners, whilst Liu Sihui just happens to be a pole dancer, presumably to drive home how far people will go to be able to afford vital medicine.

Even selling the drugs at a low price and undercutting the corporations by a massive amount, the profits are huge, leading to others trying to get in on the act. In an amusing scene, the gang gatecrash a public meeting by a conman Zhang Changlin (Yanhui Wang) to expose his miracle pills as normal paracetamol and a huge brawl ensues! Ironically, what Cheng does here is exactly what the “legit” company is about to do to them.

With there being no honour among thieves, Zhang offers to buy Cheng out but is denied, so he tips off the police about Cheng’s illegal drugs, leading to a failed raid. But this is enough for Cheng to sell up and go legit. He opens a textiles factory, but some time later learns Lv tried to kill himself to end his suffering as Zhang dissolved the smuggling ring and forced the patients back to the extortionate prices of the corporate firms.

Meanwhile, said firms are suing the Indian company for infringement of their intellectual property whilst Zhang has disappeared. Thanks to legal semantics, the Indian drugs are considered “fake” as they not on any official medical lists, regardless of whether they actually work or not. The law might not care about poorer patients but Cheng does and now loaded, he is putting the band back together to help them once again.

No more playful tone, the second half of the film is darker, bringing plot twists and a heavy moral stance with it, along with bursts of grim violent action and blatant tugging at the heartstrings. As this is a mainland film, the law must always win which is why it is remarkable how the script gets away with being so didactic within its opprobrium, unless this was the compromise.

Director Wen handles the tonal shifts between the two halves rather well, the pivot for this being Cheng’s change of heart and purpose. Yet whilst the script is lacking subtlety in places, there is a moment near the end which takes on a different sense of poignancy – throughout the film, the sick people wear masks as we currently do in these times of COVID, but they remove them in a show of solidarity for Cheng, by way of thanking him for giving them their lives back. It’s funny how this means more when viewed today.

Xu Zheng heads a strong cast whose characters all have stories to tell, but only he gets to tell his. However, Cheng goes on the bigger journey so it is only natural Xu shoulders the acting burden. It would have been nice to see more of the others; Tan Zhou is sadly the token female, whilst Zhang Yu is almost otherworldly as the taciturn Yellow Hair.

Proving good deeds don’t go unpunished thanks to blinkered definitions of law, Dying To Survive confronts a globally troubling issue to be heeded by us all, presented in a clearly accessible manner but on the nose enough to do its subject justice.

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