'Dying to Survive' ('Wo bu shi yao shen'): Film Review

Beijing Culture
Popular Chinese cinema at its best.

Wen Muye’s record-breaking social drama, based on a real-life story, lauds a Chinese businessman for circumventing big pharma and illegally importing cheap generic medicine.

Crowning Cannes' China Day events was a screening of Dying to Survive, the 2018 dramedy that became a blockbuster both in terms of its $450 million box office (making it the third-highest-grosser in China last year) and its apparent influence on government policies regarding cheap generic drugs for leukemia patients. Produced by hitmaker Ning Hao and directed by 34-year-old Wen Muye (Drug Dealer), who won the Golden Horse award for best new director with this film, it humorously and humanely describes the terrible reality of impoverished CML cancer patients unable to afford $70,000 a year worth of a life-saving meds.

The drug is Gleevec (called Glinic in the film), known as a miracle maintenance drug that allows some patients to reach a natural lifespan. It is patented by Swiss pharma giant Novartis (called Nuowa) but manufactured in India as a generic for a mere fraction of the cost. The film tells the true story of a small businessman who began smuggling the drug into China from India until he was apprehended by the police.

Wen and his co-writers Han Jianv and Zhong Wei, who collectively won the best screenplay award at the Golden Horses, use humor to sweeten the pill of tragedy, and so enroll much bigger audiences than with a straight melodrama. The film’s success is believed to have influenced government policy and resulted in the drug becoming free under health insurance. It’s as if Dallas Buyers Club, based on the true story of an AIDS patient who bucked the Food and Drug Administration to smuggle drugs into Texas, got AZT on the national Medicaid list. (It didn’t.)

Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng, Lost in Thailand) is a harassed, small-time dealer of Indian virility drugs with problems galore. His wife is divorcing him and wants to take his son abroad with her; his angry brother-in-law (Cao Bin) is a cop who threatens him; his bedridden father needs feeding and constant care. And he can’t pay the rent. When goofy leukemia patient Lv (Wang Chuanjun) proposes he import the cheap Indian version of Gleevec, he reluctantly agrees, not out of altruism but because he needs money so badly.

His contact in India sets him up and he smuggles in a test supply, but no one wants to buy the unknown drug. That is, until Yong is introduced to pole dancer Sihui (Tan Zhuo) in a nightclub. Her small daughter is sick and she’s connected to dozens of support groups. He also recruits the pious Christian minister Liu (Yang Xinming), determined to help his flock. Completing their band of smugglers is a stubborn country boy they call Yellow Hair (Yu Zhang, who won the Asian Film Award for best supporting actor for this role.)

As Yong’s client base grows, then swells, he begins raking in the dough, even though the price of a bottle is “only” $450. Yong is careful to distinguish his Indian generics, which keep patients alive, from the fake stuff sold by a quack posing as a doctor, and in a delirious free-for-all in a theater, the two come to blows. But the peddler has his number and threatens to blow the whistle with the cops unless Yong sells him the business.

The story doesn’t end here, of course, but goes through a number of twists and turns, deaths and chases. When at last Yong gets back in business, the Swiss have sued the Indian government and halted production of the generic cheapie. In a fit of angry compassion, Yong rounds up the remaining drugs on the market and sells them at a loss to the helpless sufferers he has met. (As one character wisely remarks, poverty is an incurable disease.) But the cops are closing in and after the police chief announces “the law outweighs sympathy,” they tussle with the smugglers in a pair of simple but well-motivated action scenes.   

Despite its paucity of action and some unnecessary repetitions that extend the running time, the story rolls on smoothly. In the main role, comic star Xu Zheng carries the show as a lovable tough guy who switches from exasperation with life to swinging punches out of sheer conviction. The other characters take their cue from his moods, with young Zhang Yu standing out as the indie-minded Yellow Hair.

Production companies: Dirty Monkey Films Group, Huanxi Media Group, Beijing Universe Cultural Development Co., Beijing Talent International Film Co.
Cast: Xu Zheng, Zhou Yiwei, Wang Chuanjun, Tan Zhuo, Zhang Yu, Yang Xinming

Director: Wen Muye
Screenwriters: Han Jianv, Wen Muye, Zhong Wei
Producers: Liu Ruifang Wang Yibing, Chandan Arora
Executive producers: Ning Hao, Xu Zheng
Director of photography: Wang Boxue
Production designers: Li Miao, Li Tong, Zhang Peng
Editor: Zhu Lin
Music: Huang Chao
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (China Day special screening)
World sales: Movie View International

117 minutes