Complicity (コンプリシティ, Kei Chikaura, 2018)

Complicity posterWith an ageing population and an economy trapped in a long period of stagnation, Japan has found itself in an awkward moment of possible crisis as it begins to realise it will need to embrace immigration or face a serious labour shortage. Like many nations, unfortunately, much of Japan remains uncomfortable with the idea of overseas labour especially when it comes to “low skilled” work in construction, manufacturing, and casual jobs such those in restaurants and convenience stores. Given government intransigence and pressing need, workers from other areas of Asia are often employed illegally and subject to exploitation by gangs or unscrupulous employers.

The hero of Kei Chikaura’s Complicty (コンプリシテ), Chen Liang (Lu Yulai), finds himself in just this position as he leaves his sickly mother and feisty grandma alone in rural China in the hope of making enough money in Japan to come home and restart the family business. What he discovers, however, is that he’s essentially been trafficked as cheap labour and is already in hock for an ID card he was conned into paying three times the going rate for on the pretext it was “safer”. Now living under the name Liu Wei, Chen Liang is disturbed to receive calls on his new phone intended for his namesake but is tempted when Liu Wei receives a job offer from an employment agency. Passing himself off as his cover identity, Chen Liang takes the job only latterly realising it’s the rather incongruous position of a trainee chef in a family-owned soba restaurant.

Against expectation, ageing soba chef Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji) and his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto) are warm and welcoming people who are actually a little bit excited that someone from China wants to learn about soba. Taken in almost as a member of the family, Chen Liang begins to feel conflicted – he is after all lying to them, at least about his name and circumstances, and his presence in their home might cause them trouble if he is ever found out. Meanwhile, he also strikes up a friendship with an artist who is learning Mandarin but has to lie to her too, pretending they may one day meet up in Beijing when in reality he has never even been there.

His burgeoning romance with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka) is what precipitates his downfall as she, unaware he is undocumented, reports his stolen wallet to the police. The lies do not stop there – Chen Liang is also lying to his worried mother back at home who thinks he’s working in an office, while she is simultaneously lying to him in pretending everything’s fine in order to facilitate his “happy” life in Japan where he is supposed to make lots of money and come back a wealthy man. In order to make his dream succeed, Chen Liang must become Liu Wei at the exclusion of all else, forsaking his life as Chen Liang and living carefully as if he has nothing to fear.

Chen Liang is onto a good thing and has fared much better than some of his friends who either got themselves picked up by the police for doing the gang’s dirty work or found themselves out in the cold with no feasible way to get back “home”. Hiroshi’s son, with whom he seems to have some kind of bad family history, looks down on Chen Liang unable to understand why his father employed someone from China when the business is on the rocks. His attitude seems to be one shared by many (though not the universally supportive customers in Hiroshi’s soba shop) who see only difference rather than commonality. Despite the language barrier, Hiroshi and Chen Liang are often able to communicate through written characters, while another poignant moment of bonding sees Chen Liang sing the Mandarin lyrics over the top of Hazuki’s cheerful refrain of a popular Japanese song by Teresa Teng beloved all across Asia. Hiroshi himself was born in Beijing at the end of the war – a painful reminder of the complicated history between the two nations, but also one of how much they are interconnected and how little place of birth has to do with cultural identity.

Emphasising how much they have in common rather than the various ways in which Chen Liang differs from the world around him, Chikaura paints a much more sympathetic portrait of a migrant worker than the one usually found in the media. Filling the void left behind by Hiroshi’s own resentful son, Chen Liang becomes a valued and trusted member of the family who are in a sense “harbouring” him but to protect rather than exploit. Pushed to go to Japan despite his misgivings and drifting into the soba shop job through accidental opportunism, Chen Liang had in a sense abandoned his identity in avoiding making concrete decisions. Being Liu Wei was also a way to hide from his insecurities and fears for the future, but only through the unconditional love he received under false pretences is he finally able to reclaim his name, fugitive but free at last. A powerful plea for empathy and cross cultural connection, Complicity is a beautifully drawn character study in which kindness and compassion eventually open new paths for a conflicted young man trying to find his place in an often hostile world.


Complicity was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s – Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase

Mandarin version – I Only Care About You

Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Li Xinyun, 2018)

lobster cop poster 1Sadly, Lobster Cop (龙虾刑警, Lóngxiā Xíngjǐng) is not the story of a team of intrepid crustaceans in a trench coat but an amusing tale of bumbling cops made good as their plan to hole up in a seafood joint pays out in unexpected ways. Actress Li Xinyun’s directorial debut is a surprisingly subversive affair proving once again that light comedy is becoming the satirical battleground of the contemporary Chinese cinema industry and dancing rings around the censors in the process.

Our hero, bumbling policeman Yufei (Wang Qianyuan), has a habit of tracking down the bad guys but letting them get away at the critical moment. When yet another mistake puts him on the chief’s naughty list, he finds himself up against rival Xu Xin (Wang Zheng) and given a month to figure out how drug dealers are getting their merchandise into the country. Taking his best squad with him – grandfatherly Neng (Liu Hua), tomboyish Hua Jie (Yuan Shanshan), and rookie Chen (Zhou You ), Yufei vows to crack the case. Noticing that a rundown crayfish restaurant he often stops in to relieve himself has an excellent view of a “logistics company” they suspect is responsible for importing the drugs, Yufei catches on the idea of turning restauranteur in order to stakeout his quarry.

The unexpected snag is that Neng always fancied himself as a bit of a cook and his crayfish unexpectedly takes off, which is good news in one sense because it means the gang can pay back some of the money Chen had to borrow from his wealthy mother to get the restaurant off the ground, but bad in that it’s very difficult to run a successful eatery and chase drug dealers at the same time – especially when the drug dealers become some of your best customers.

In order to make their cover more credible, the gang end up posing as a family with Neng as the cuddly dad, Yufei and Hua Jie as an improbable couple, and Chen as the adorable little brother. As the restaurant starts to take off the cover identities start to take over with only Yufei digging his heels in as he tries his best to catch the bad guys in order to best his police rival and prove himself to the chief. Nevertheless, like any good police squad the secret ingredient of success is fellow feeling and it’s brotherly love that eventually saves our confuzzled cops as they get themselves into a series of sticky situations with the equally bumbling “logistics” guys while accidentally carving a path towards kingpin The General (Li Jianren).

In a slightly surprising move given the usual censors’ board squeamishness, Li inserts a fair amount of subtle homoerotic content beginning with straight-laced policeman Xu Xin walking into a potential cruising situation with the very flamboyant General hanging around in the Gents for reasons seemingly unrelated to crime (though he does later enjoy a carriage ride with a pretty lady), while a regular visitor to the shop openly flirts with Neng who seems to, on one level at least, be receptive to his advances. While it’s true that both of the presumably gay guys (Neng aside) turn out to be “bad” in one way or another, it is a refreshingly ordinary kind of representation in which homosexuality is not in itself the joke and, in a tacit sense, almost totally normalised.

Then again it is the traditional family, in model terms at least, which eventually wins out as the guys begin to pull together to make their lobster restaurant a success and eventually learn to work as a team while embracing their own strengths so they can take down the bad guys. An entertaining mix of witty banter and slapstick martial arts underpinned by tasty food photography and a cheeky subversive spirit, Lobster Cop is a surprisingly surreal concoction and a promisingly off the wall debut from Li who manages to ground the often strange goings on firmly in the real while ensuring her losers make good story commands genuine warmth.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lost, Found (找到你, Lü Yue, 2018)

Lü Yue’s Lost, Found (找到你, Zhǎodào Nǐ) follows hot on the heels of Korean kidnap drama Missing but it is not, apparently, a remake but part of an increasing trend of global filmmaking in which an original scenario is developed for several territories simultaneously with Qin Haiyan’s script reportedly produced while the Korean version was shooting. Despite sharing the same plot outline, however, Lost, Found puts a distinctly Chinese spin on the central dilemma as its cynical heroine is forced to reassess her life choices and her entire relationship with her society when her daughter disappears.

Li Jie (Yao Chen) is a high flying, cynical lawyer who only cares about winning cases. At home, she’s mother to two-year-old Duo Duo and is currently engaged in a custody battle with her daughter’s father following the breakdown of her marriage to a successful surgeon. To help her out at home with her busy schedule, she’s employed a young woman, Sun Fang (Ma Yili), as a nanny but is at times jealous that her little girl seems more attached to the traditionally maternal home help than to her biological mother. Her worst fears are realised one day when she returns home to find dirty breakfast dishes still on the table and the flat empty. Worrying her mother-in-law has managed to snatch Duo Duo, Li Jie is reluctant to get the authorities involved but is eventually forced to acknowledge that something more serious may have occurred with Sun Fang nowhere to be found.

Talking to her former husband, Li Jie insists that a woman’s future shouldn’t be decided by love or marriage and that she wants Duo Duo to have more freedom but she’s distinctly slow to warm up the theme of female solidarity as shown by her callous treatment of the defendant in her divorce case in which she is trying to win custody on behalf of an adulterous husband by calling into question the wife’s mental stability. Despite the woman’s pleas as one mother to another, Li Jie coldly tells her that the circumstances are largely irrelevant – she is merely a lawyer wielding the law and will do her best to win the case because that is her job.

Forced to investigate the life of Sun Fang, however, her perspective begins to shift. Busy as she is, Li Jie did not perhaps pay as much attention to her nanny as she should have. She took the word of a neighbour with whom she was not particularly close that Sun Fang was a trusted relative with childcare experience without asking for documentation or employment records. Besides, Sun Fang was good with the child and Duo Duo seemed to like her so Li Jie felt comfortable leaving her in Sun Fang’s care. What she discovers is that Sun Fang had experienced many difficulties in her life which she, as an urban middle-class and highly educated woman, had largely been protected from. Because she personally had not suffered, she was content not consider the suffering of others and thought only of herself, even perhaps regarding possession of Duo Duo as something to be won on a point of pride rather than an expression of maternal love or a deeply seated belief that she could offer better care.

Despite its fairly progressive message of social responsibility and female solidarity, Lost, Found takes a disappointing turn for the conservative when it implies that Li Jie should ease back on her career to focus on motherhood rather than allowing her simply to re-embrace her love for her daughter without fear or anxiety. Yet it does also encourage her to contemplate the increasingly unequal nature of the modern China – men/women, town/country, rich/poor, destinies are decided largely by circumstances of birth rather than individual merit. If Li Jie had been born in the same place as Sun Fang, her life might have been much the same. Realising she should have taken more of an interest in the woman raising her child, Li Jie is forced to accept that her own privilege has blinded her and that she does indeed have a responsibility to others and to her society if most particularly to her daughter. A tense, frantic tale of frustrated motherhood, Lost, Found is at once a condemnation of modern disconnection and a quiet plea for a return to kindhearted altruism.


Lost, Found was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In Character (入戏, Dong Xueying, 2018)

In Character posterThere has of late been an unfortunate trend of historical revisionism in recent Chinese cinema which has sought to look back at the Cultural Revolution with a kind of fond remembrance for a more “innocent” time. Mostly coming from directors in their 50s and 60s who were themselves young during the last years of Maoism, films such as Feng Xiaogang’s Youth have attempted to draw a sharp contrast with the collectivist past and consumerist present as if to lament the passing of a kinder era, but have also largely located themselves within the cosseted group of youngsters working for the regime and therefore shielded from the intense cruelty of the age.

Songs of the Youth 1969, the debut (and to this date only) narrative feature film from director Ye Jing, is much the same in this regard in that it deliberately recreates his own longed for adolescence as young man fighting, he thought at the time, for a better China. Lamenting that the young people of today have no idealism, he describes the Cultural Revolution as a “rock ‘n’ roll movement” in which intellectual youth chased love and freedom through venerating Mao. Looking at footage of himself on screen, he urges the youngsters not to pity the kids in the square even though they were being “brainwashed” but to admire them because they were fighting passionately for something they believed in.

Dong Xueying, the director of In Character (入戏, Rù), came on board with the intention of exploring the living conditions of Chinese actors but quickly found herself sucked into an alternate reality in documenting the behind the scenes production of Songs of the Youth 1969 as Ye sends his cadre of youngsters off to an abandoned munitions factory in Sichuan for “the Cultural Revolution Experience”. During this time, they must prepare by living under contemporary conditions – wearing Red Army uniforms, surrendering their phones and other modern communication devices, and learning the various revolutionary songs which operated as a key part of the movement.

Although the young men and women are merely actors born long after the Cultural Revolution had ended, the “experience” quickly turns into a kind of social experiment along the lines of Stanford Prison as the intense mob mentality of the era begins to take hold. An early visit from Ye finds them furiously role playing, greeting him as if they were ghosts of his past waiting more than 40 years for his return. Playfully singing bawdy and suggestive songs, they embrace the sense of fun loving youth the director seems to be looking for but a fatal mistake by one young actor abruptly turns the tables, recalling the fear and danger that many must surely have felt in an era of intense suspicion puritanical scrutiny.

Many had openly laughed during rehearsals as they spouted the outdated Maoist quotations and learned the choreography for revolutionary ballet, but the fervour eventually takes hold and it’s not long before they begin turning on each other. First it’s a minor complaint blown out of all proportion about inattention and fiddling with fingernails instead of concentrating on collective concerns, and then an outright attack on one of their number who has made an obvious if understandable mistake – he asked for a few days off on hearing a relative was dangerously ill, and not only that, he misspelled Chairman Mao’s name in his apology letter. Jiang Siyuan’s request seriously upset Ye who is now convinced that the modern youth is selfish and irresponsible and that the youngsters still haven’t absorbed the spirit of the Cultural Revolution. Upset that Jiang may have ruined all their hard work, the actors subject him to a Struggle Session in which he must self criticise while they each berate him for damaging the integrity of their common project.

Ironically enough, the “film” has taken the place of the revolutionary ideal, while Ye has become a kind of Mao figure as a faraway authority whom they must worship and placate to make their dream come true. Despite their modern upbringings, the actors quickly succumb to the worst tendencies of the age as they consent to oppress each other, going along with the austerity of the ideology which instructs them to rid themselves of their “selfish” instincts in order to serve the collective while simultaneously emphasising their individual will to ensure their place in the film which necessarily means that Jiang must surrender his human feeling and accept he may never see his grandfather again.

Ye promises them the time of their lives in an experience he hopes will be life changing in the same way, presumably, he feels his own youthful brush with the revolution to have been, but their memories of the munitions factory are likely to be less positive as they ruminate on the immediacy with which they were able to betray each other in service of an empty ideal. Dong’s camera captures not only the misguided romanticisation of the Cultural Revolution by those like Ye disillusioned with the path of modern China, but its frightening legacy in the ease with which such inhumanity takes hold.


In Character was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Rib (肋骨, Zhang Wei, 2018)

“You choose to live together because you love each other, and to enter holy matrimony with our blessing” a rigid priest ominously intones at the outset of Zhang Wei’s The Rib (肋骨, Lèi). This conflict between personal choice and a need for approval from authority figures to legitimise it is at the heart of Zhang’s empathetic exploration of transgender lives in contemporary China. Given the censors’ constant preoccupation with LGBT issues (40 minutes of footage were apparently removed to gain approval though at the request of the Catholic Church rather than the state authorities), his decision to focus on a transwoman’s struggle to get through to her religious father may be a surprising one but follows a wider trend in Chinese language cinema which is beginning to embrace such formerly untouchable subjects with increasing positivity.

The Rib is, however, as much a critique of oppressive Confucianist social codes and rigid religiosity as it is a plea for greater empathy and understanding in accepting others for who they are rather than forcing them to abide by outdated ideas of conservative conformity. Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) was assigned male at birth but identifies as female and wants to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, however, despite the fact that Huanyu is 32 years old she still needs her father’s signature on a consent form to get the operation and not only that, her father has to be filmed signing it in person in case there are any repercussions further down the line.

The major problem is, Huanyu’s father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi) is a devout Christian who even serves as a sign language interpreter during church services. Huanyu’s mother passed away when she was small and so Jianguo raised her alone. Given his strict religiosity he is unlikely ever to agree to the surgery and Huanyu has never felt able to discuss her gender dysphoria or sexuality with her father for fear that he wouldn’t understand. Those fears are borne out when Huanyu is forced to talk to him in order to move towards surgery. Jianguo thinks it’s a joke, and then some kind of mental illness which could be cured with the right treatment. He hosts an intervention with the priest and other attendees of the church in order to talk Huanyu out of her conviction that she is a woman and even goes so far as to set her up with a selection of pretty sex workers in the belief that Huanyu will change her mind after feeling “like a man” through experiencing “proper” sex with a woman.

Of course, all this really does is drive a further wedge between father and son. Jianguo lashes out. He goes to visit a friend of Huanyu’s, Liu Mann (Gao Deng), who has recently returned from undergoing reassignment surgery in Thailand (where it’s cheaper and there aren’t so many barriers), but rather asking pertinent questions he viciously berates her. Liu Mann, Huanyu’s closest confidante, is not herself certain that Huanyu should have surgery. Returning to work after her operation she found herself fired for not being the same person who left and though she’s suing them for unfair dismissal has discovered that one kind of unhappiness has merely replaced another. Jeered at in the street, enduring the sniggers from insensitive shop staff, and labeled a pervert for just trying to use the bathroom in a public place, Liu Mann has begun to fall into despair no longer believing that a happier future where she could live as herself in freedom is a real possibility.

Jianguo insists he knows his son best and blames Huanyu’s friends for corrupting her. Huanyu is 32, but Jianguo still exercises his paternal authority in loudly declaiming that he will not “allow” this situation to continue any further. Believing that the problem may be that Huanyu had no maternal input, he even starts romancing a woman from church who has no idea she is merely a tool in Jianguo’s mission to “save” his son, while furiously praying that Huanyu will soon marry and have children. The Church itself becomes, perhaps ironically, another vessel for rigid Confucianism as Jianguo ponders the end of his family line along with his dwindling authority and the effects of his son’s “sin” on his own good standing in the eyes of the community.

Yet through witnessing the increasingly destructive results of his actions Jianguo begins to reconsider. He listens to medical advice, attends seminars, and asks himself the true meaning of his faith. After all, if God is in heaven listening to prayers from his children below, then shouldn’t a father on Earth listen to his son’s wishes? Jianguo stops worrying about sin and asks more practical questions – is it safe, is it painful, will it end Huanyu’s life sooner, and weighs the degree of his child’s suffering against his ideology. Shooting in crisp black and white with only the startling red of Huanyu’s favourite dress, Zhang captures the dullness of Huanyu’s existence as she feels herself only half alive before ending on a note of vivid colour as the faces of transgender people fill the frame. A tender, empathetic exploration of a sensitive issue, The Rib is an important step forward for trans representation in Mainland China and a powerful plea for human decency and universal understanding.


The Rib was screened at the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival and the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Meili (美麗, Zhou Zhou, 2018)

Meili poser 2Though Mainland cinema has a famous aversion to the representation of LGBT lives on-screen, there does seem to have been a notable shift towards the positive in recent years with even big budget blockbuster comedies and family films offering subversive, if subtle, messages of tacit support. Nevertheless, lesbian life continues to be underserved with Fish and Elephant, often regarded as the “first” explicitly lesbian film from Mainland China, released only in 2001. Zhou Zhou’s Meili (美麗) is not an issue film nor does it make much of its protagonist’s sexuality but it does attempt to address the many difficulties she experiences in her life as a gay woman from a humble background.

Meili (Chi Yun) has a casual job in a laundry and lives with her high flying career woman girlfriend Li Wen (Zhou Meiyan) who is often forced to stay out late drinking to excess with colleagues in an attempt to climb the ladder. Li Wen receives the opportunity of an extended business trip to Shanghai and asks Meili to go with her only to change her mind abruptly at the last minute, fearing her colleagues will find out that she’s in a relationship with another woman and it will damage her prospects or perhaps even cost her her job. Though Meili was ambivalent about going anyway, the sudden reversal proves a huge shock, especially as she’s also been let go from her laundry job for having the temerity to ask about the annual leave policy.

Meanwhile, Meili is constantly pestered for money by her hard-pressed older sister (Li Shuangyu) who is married to a man (Wang Limin) so vile Meili can hardly bear to look at him. The reasons for her disdain will become apparent, but adding to the confusing family situation is a little girl being brought up by the couple which is apparently Meili’s. Meili is a lesbian with no interest in men which may hint at the reasons she intensely hates the child and resents the entire situation. Despite all that, however, Meili does not seem to be able to cut her sister off and finds herself going out of her way to help her even though she is herself in extreme difficulty.

Toughness and tenderness do seem to go together as we witness Meili set up an IV for her hung-over girlfriend, berating her for drinking too much yet again but caring for her anyway. Meili blows up at her brother-in-law’s, overturning their dinner table when he insults her in front of his friends, but shuts down when wounded by Li Wen, seemingly unwilling to engage in a probably destructive argument but dragged into one anyway. The relationship between the two women appears settled and positive despite the disparity of their socioeconomic statuses, but there are cracks and when Meili begins to suspect that Li Wen may be seeing a male colleague behind her back, perhaps as a cover or to improve her career prospects, she begins to wonder what they really are to each other.

For Meili who could not rely on her family, and had no future plans or real place to belong, Li Wen had become everything. “Shanghai” is a dream to the youngsters of Changchun who assume the gleaming city must be full of opportunity and excitement but it may well be one beyond their reach even if they manage to escape industrial town casual labour hell. Meili bears her difficult circumstances with fortitude. Obliged to live quietly and under the radar, she works hard and saves her money but is betrayed at every turn – by unscrupulous employers, by her toxic family, by her ambitious girlfriend, and even by her supportive and well meaning friends who reluctantly decide that they will have to leave her behind alone in order to chase their own dreams in the city. Having lost everything and all hope for the future, violent revenge seems an unavoidable consequence of her almost total oppression.

A popular name for baby girls, “Meili” means beautiful but there’s precious little beauty in Meili’s increasingly grey and hopeless world. Human selfishness, capitalistic avarice, and conservative patriarchal values conspire to rob her of all possibility for life or forward motion. There is no path out of poverty and little possibility of happiness in being able to live openly and equally with a woman by whom she is fully loved. Painting a bleak picture of life in post-reform provincial China, Zhou’s debut presents a refreshingly normalised depiction of a same sex relationship while making plain each of the various ways its heroine is backed into a corner by the oppressive and increasingly unequal society in which she lives.


Meili was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wen Muye, 2018)

dying to survive poster 1Big box office Chinese comedy continues to run rings round the censors in Wen Muye’s Dying to Survive (我不是药神, Wǒ Bú Shì Yào Shén). Not only does the film display on screen protest movements and tacitly imply that sometimes it’s OK to break the law when you think the law is wrong, but it also dares to criticise the state both for its slowness to introduce socialised healthcare provisions and for its failure to moderate increasing wealth inequality in the rapidly expanding modern economy.

In Shanghai in 2003, our hero Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng) is the proprietor of a shop selling “Indian God Oil”. A divorced father, he is involved in a volatile custody dispute with his ex-wife who has remarried and wants to take their son abroad. Meanwhile, he’s behind on his rent and the god oil business is not exactly booming. That is, until he receives an unusual business proposition. Lv (Wang Chuanjun), a young man suffering from chronic myelogenous leukemia, asks him to begin importing a knock off Indian cancer drug which is a clone copy of the big brand variety at a fraction of the cost. The Indian drug is banned in China, but, Lv argues, not because it’s unsafe – only because Big Pharma is determined to protect its profits at the costs of people’s lives. Yong is not convinced. He knows there are heavy penalties for trafficking “fake” medications, but he needs money for his father’s medical care and to fight for custody of his son and so he decides to give it a go, if for mercenary rather than humanitarian reasons.

Yong’s transformation from schlubby snake oil peddler to (medical) drug dealer extraordinaire is a swift one and perhaps a satirical example of amoral capitalistic excess in his series of moral justifications which allow him to think he’s better than Big Pharma because the price he’s charging is lower even while knowing there are many people who still can’t afford it. Nevertheless, he quickly discovers he has competition. The even more dubious Professor Zhang (Wang Yanhui) claims to have a wonder drug that does the same thing, only it’s really paracetamol cut with flour. Zhang’s duplicity annoys Yong, not just from a competitive angle, but from a humanitarian one as he finds himself sympathising with the poor men and women who are unable to afford the extortionate fees imposed by the mainstream drug companies.

Afraid of the consequences, Yong gives up the drug trade and goes legit, becoming a successful textile merchant rich beyond his wildest dreams. Conveniently, it’s at this point his humanitarianism begins to reawaken as he’s brought back into contact with a sickly Lv who tells him that the smuggling ring has since dissolved. Zhang, irritated by Yong’s moralising, tells him that no real good will come of the “fake” drug trade because the “disease of poverty” can never be cured. Zhang does indeed have a point. These people are dying because they’re poor and have been deemed expendable. Yong’s change of heart may be all for the good, but it’s also fuelled largely by the fact he can now afford not to care very much about money which means he is free to care about other people’s welfare.

Then again, the police chief remonstrates with a conflicted underling that the law trumps sympathy. By this point, they have realised that the drug smuggling ring is close to a public service and people will die if they arrest the ringleaders, but their hands are also tied by the need to preserve order through enforcing the law. The law, however, is also corrupt as we see by the direct presence of Big Pharma sitting right in the incident room and asking the police to act on its behalf. Big Pharma would argue that it invested heavily in the research which led to the medical breakthrough and is entitled to reclaim its costs while those selling knockoffs are nothing more than pirates guilty of intellectual property theft, but the police has a duty to protect its people and a significant conflict when the “victim” is wilfully misusing its economic and political power to coerce it to do their dirty work.

This being a Mainland film, crime cannot pay but Yong manages to emerge from his straitened circumstances in heroic style as he stands both remorseful for having broken the law and angry that he even had to. A series of closing intertitles is quick to remind us that following the real life events which inspired Dying to Survive, the Chinese state began to reconsider its health polices, relaxed the law on “fake” drug trafficking, and took measures to make care more affordable to all. A subversive treat, Dying to Survive is the rare Chinese film which seems to suggest that civil disobedience is an effective weapon against an unfair society, making a hero of its lawbreaking humanitarian as he, ironically, learns to put the collective interest before the individual.


Dying to Survive was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)