Dying to Survive was the film phenomenon of 2018 in China, taking a total of US$450 million at the box-office, and it kicked off the trend for films with a strong social content but which don’t rock the boat politically. The film is based on a real-life news story: a many dying of leukaemia in 2004 decided to illegally import into China low-cost cancer medicines made in India. The main character in the film is Cheng Yong, an importer of Indian aphrodisiac oils, who is contacted by the sick man to help him smuggle the medicines into the country. Cheng Yong – played by Xu Zheng who, with his unforgettable facial expressions manages to nail the complexity of the character from the very first shot – agrees to help, partly out of greed and partly because he needs cash for his own sick father, although he is unaware of the radical consequences his actions will have on his life. Cheng Yong has an ex-wife who torments him and a son he has difficulty communicating with, and he is the classic all-round smuggler, opportunistic and cunning, but with a heart of gold.
He quickly finds himself at the head of a gang of unlikely smugglers, made up of Lv Shouyi, the sick man who initially contacted him, a pole dancer who is the mother of a sick girl who distributes the product to selected groups of patients, a priest who speaks English and helps communicate with the Indian supplier, and another sick young man who sees himself as a kind of Robin Hood-style figure . After a hesitant start, the business takes off and grows, helping thousands of patients to take their treatment into their own hands at cut-price, but it also attracts the attentions of the importer of the official pharmaceutical product, who reports their actions to the police. Under pressure from the authorities and enticed by the offer of a large sum of money, Cheng Yong decides to sell his business to a dealer of counterfeit medicines, in order to become a legitimate textile entrepreneur, announcing his decision to the rest of the group in a crucial scene that once again puts Xu Zheng’s acting credentials on display; but a year later he learns that the trafficker has disappeared and Lv Shouyi is dying. At this moment, the film switches with convincing fluidity from a comedy to a drama, with director Wen Muye showing a remarkable maturity for what is his debut film.
The second part of the film tells the story of Cheng Yong’s conversion into a Good Samaritan, made convincing by Xu Zhen’s performance, equally credible when he doesn’t have to make people laugh but has to make them cry. The rest of the cast – especially Wang Chuanjun who plays Lv Shouyi – are also perfect in their roles, in a film that alternates genuinely funny scenes with more dramatic ones without ever losing narrative coherence and style. While the moral of the film seems to be that while no one is perfect, they cannot be labelled as purely evil either, the ending also contains an official message, namely that following the story, the authorities included the low-cost medicine in the list of those approved by the Chinese healthcare administration.
Produced by Ning Hao and Xu Zheng himself, the film has been compared to Dallas Buyers Club for the issue tackled, and it has resonated among the Chinese public, even being quoted by the Premier of the State Council, Li Keqiang. The public identifies with the sick protesting in the film about the inaccessibility of drugs at affordable prices and who represent all those who cannot keep up with a cost of living that is growing disproportionately. As Cheng Yong says when his morale hits rock-bottom: “There is only one real illness: poverty.”