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)

The Island (一出好戏, Huang Bo, 2018)

the island poster 1Comedy seems to have regained its bite of late. Filmmakers seeking to deliver pointed barbs at the modern China are pulling away from the traditionally safe areas of the period drama for a natural home in satire which for the time being at least is running rings around the censors’ board, albeit in a subdued fashion. The directorial debut from comedic actor Huang Bo, The Island (一出好戏, Yìchū Hăoxì) offers a mini lesson on the perils of untapped capitalism, tyranny, propaganda and “fake news” agendas in the form of a genial romcom in which a nice guy loser makes himself the king and wins the heart of his fair princess only for his empire to crumble under the weight of his own conflicted moralities.

On the day a meteor may or may not be on course to fall to Earth, dejected middle-aged office worker Ma Jin (Huang Bo) is off on a “team building” trip with his colleagues which involves a lengthy journey on an aquatic bus. Ma seems to owe money to just about everyone but swears he will soon pay them back, meanwhile he’s also hoping to get close to office beauty Shanshan (Shu Qi ) on whom he has a longstanding crush. At long last, it seems like Ma’s ship has finally come in – on checking his lottery numbers, Ma realises he’s the jackpot winner and can probably quit his boring job as soon as they dock, possibly even sweeping Shanshan off her feet as he does so. Alas it is not to be as seconds later the meteorite strikes engulfing the duck boat in a tsunami and eventually marooning the entire party on a deserted rocky island somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Huang wastes no time mocking modern consumerism. Ma Jin is now a millionaire but it couldn’t matter less. Likewise, slick boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) is at a similar impasse. He’s supposed to be in charge, an innovator and entrepreneur with all the ideas and a clear path to success but he is stunned and can only scream into the ocean while vowing to use his vast wealth to buy a new ship. The passengers look for leaders, some sticking with their social superior Zhang while others start to flock to the energetic bus driver Wang (Wang Baoqiang) who offers more practical solutions having discovered an abundant crop of fruit trees during an early exploration of the terrain. Wang used to be a monkey keeper and quickly assumes control with an authority born of strength and dominance as well as the withholding of the means to survive from those who do not submit to him.

It’s not long before some of the passengers long to be free of his oppressive yoke and the ideal opportunity arises when capitalist boss Zhang chances on a ready supply of capital in the form of a shipwrecked, upside-down boat which is laden with supplies. Ma Jin and his cousin Xing (Lay Zhang) follow Zhang who later institutes a market economy using playing cards for currency which offers the illusion of freedom but traps the employees in a system of capitalistic wage slavery while Zhang gets “rich” at the top of the pile. Ma Jin and Xing eventually grow disillusioned with their increased status at Zhang’s side when they realise he doesn’t have a plan for getting off the island and has given up on the idea of returning to civilisation.

Pitting two sides against the other, Ma Jin manages to create unity under a system of communism with capitalist characteristics (you see where he going with this?) in which he reigns as something like first among equals. Ma Jin’s “communist” utopia filled with laughter, song, and impromptu dance sequences is only born when he realises he’s missed the date to claim his lottery ticket and that there’s nothing worth going back for whether civilisation still exists or not. With his new found status, he’s finally able to get close the emotionally wounded Shanshan but becomes increasingly conflicted as the “fakery’ required to keep his regime in place begins to weigh on his mind, especially when a boat is spotted on the horizon and the entire system seems primed to crumble. Ma Jin gives in to his worst instincts at the instigation of his even more corrupted cousin who brands the boat visionary a false prophet, a madman who can’t accept the wonders of the new regime.

Only when confronted with Shanshan’s genuine emotion for the man he was pretending to be does Ma Jin wake up from his embittered fever dream to realise the dangers of the world he has created out of his own sense of inferiority, and particularly the harm done to his cousin who perhaps always felt a little oppressed just by him. The message is however compromised by Ma Jin’s otherwise positive realisation that lack of money was not as big a barrier to his success as lack of self confidence and avoidance of truthful emotional connections which of course undermines the central criticism of the increasing inequalities of modern Chinese society just as the ironic coda undoes the anti-consumerist message. Nevertheless, though overlong The Island successfully marries its romantic comedy core with its satirical aspirations thanks to the committed performances of the always radiant Shu Qi who invests the underwritten Shanshan with the necessary levels of wavering earnest while Huang Bo brings his usual hangdog charm to the role of the corrupted everyman.


International trailer (English subtitles)

A Better Tomorrow 2018 (英雄本色2018, Ding Sheng, 2018)

better tomorrow 2018 posterIn the history of Hong Kong cinema, there are few films which could realistically claim the same worldwide influence as John Woo’s 1986 landmark A Better Tomorrow. Commissioned by Tsui Hark, the then jobbing director Woo was tasked with creating a vehicle for a veteran Shaw Brothers star. Casting Cantopop idol Leslie Cheung and TV sensation Chow Yun-fat, Woo mixed traditional melodrama with hyper masculine emotionality to give birth to what would become the “heroic bloodshed” genre which was to dominate the island’s cinematic output well into the ‘90s. A Better Tomorrow, as its title implies, is the perfect evocation of its era and among the first to express an oncoming anxiety for Hong Kong’s “return” to China then only a decade away. Slick and oozing with ‘80s, macho cool, Woo’s film captured the imaginations of young men everywhere who suddenly took to wearing sunglasses and trench coats while chewing on match sticks, dreaming dreams of heroism in a sometimes gloomy world.

Which is all to say, attempting to “remake” Woo’s masterpiece may well be a fool’s errand. It is however one which has been frequently attempted, not least by Wong Jing in 1994 and Song Hae-sung in Korea in 2010. Korean cinema has perhaps become the heir of heroic bloodshed with its inherent love of melodrama which often finds its way into the nation’s bloody gangster epics whose generally high level of homosocial bonding is perfectly primed for male honour drama. Ding Sheng, apparently a huge fan of the original Hong Kong hit, brings the tale north to the Mainland, relocating to Qingdao which serves as a trading post for the drug running route from Japan.

As in the original we have two biological brothers – Kai (Wang Kai), a “sailor” who has fallen into smuggling to support his family who are unaware of his criminal occupation, and Chao (Ma Tianyu) – a rookie policeman. Meanwhile, Kai also has a criminal “brother” in his younger partner Mark (Wang Talu), an orphaned hothead from Taiwan. Kai is a “noble” smuggler who refuses to traffic drugs but a Hong Kong triad boss is hellbent on fishing out his Japanese contacts and after a job goes wrong, Kai ends up getting shot and arrested by his own brother who is heartbroken to discover the truth. Spending three years in prison during which time Kai’s father is killed in a raid on their home by gangsters looking for info on the Japanese, Kai tries to go straight but finds himself pulled back into the underworld after coming into conflict with villainous gangster Cang (Yu Ailei) who has taken over the Japan route (and forced Kai’s old girlfriend into prostitution after getting her hooked on drugs).

Ding’s film, while replicating the plot of Woo’s original, attempts to bring it into the “modern” era in which the stylised, manly melodrama of the ‘80s action movie has long since been replaced by a finer desire for “uncool” realism. Ding does not seem to be making a particular point about modern China, other than in persistent economic inequality which has forced an “honest” man like Kai into a life of crime for the otherwise honourable reason of taking care of his family. Though this itself maybe a subtle reference to the post-90s world, the major anxiety seems to be more with cross cultural interactions and possible pollution of “good” Chinese men like Kai who have been led astray by the false promises of, for example, gangsters from Hong Kong, and the old enemies in Japan. Interestingly enough, the relationships themselves are formalised and superficial. In Japan Kai and Mark are entertained in a “super Japanese” bar of the kind which only tourists frequent, decked to the ceilings with cherry blossoms and staffed with “geisha” girls, while in China they take their guests to a bar which has Peking Opera going on in the background as entertainment.

Kai is fond of telling his sworn brother that everything in the world may change, but brotherhood remains the same. This turns turn out to be an ironic comment in that his natural brother, Chao, disowns him in shame and loathing after his release from prison. Nevertheless, Kai never gives up striving for Chao’s approval even whilst reuniting with Mark who has been crippled and reduced to cleaning boats at the harbour after trying to exact revenge for Kai’s betrayal. The trio’s manly honour code is thrown into stark relief by the amoral Cang who, claiming that “the world has changed” and loyalty no longer means anything, thinks nothing of shooting anyone and everyone who stands between himself and financial gain. If Ding has a comment to make, it’s that the traditional ideas of brotherhood, loyalty, justice and goodness are being eroded by the lure of foreign gold promised by corruption, exploitation, and an absence of morality.

Ding isn’t trying to match Woo’s grand sweep of tragic inevitability so much as aiming for straightforward crime drama but his occasional concessions to melodrama never quite gel with his otherwise gritty approach, nor do his unsubtle his homages to the original film which find Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme song becoming a frequent musical motif as well as prominently featuring at an ultra cool hipster bar located in a disused boat which plays his record on a turntable with a large picture of a grinning Chow Yun-fat behind it. A Better Tomorrow 2018 succeeds as a passible action drama, but one without the heart and soul that made Woo’s original so special. 


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)