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)

End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Zhou Quan, 2017)

The End of Summer posterMany things were changing in late ‘90s China. For one little boy in the summer of 1998, however, nothing much mattered beyond the World Cup which was being broadcast in its entirety for the very first time. Part nostalgia fest for a more innocent world, Zhou Quan’s End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Xī Xiǎo de Xiàtiān) is, as the title implies, a story of befores as its various protagonists attempt to resolve a series of personal crises that will lead to great changes preceding the autumn of 1998.

Football obsessed little boy Xiaoyang (Rong Zishan) has to keep his love a secret because his dad, Jianhua (Zhang Songwen), thinks all sports are frivolous and has forbidden his son to play with the other children. Jianhua is also a high ranking teacher at Xiaoyang’s school and demands high levels of discipline and commitment from his family, even forcing Xiaoyang to dob one of his friends in under heavy questioning about a playground fight. Bored and lonely at home, Xiaoyang has begun to bond with an older man at their courtyard who also loves football and has promised to help Xiaoyang train for the upcoming school tryouts next term if only he can persuade his dad to sign the consent form.

Meanwhile, there’s trouble brewing on the home front. Xiaoyang’s mother Huifang (Tan Zhuo) is a successful Peking Opera performer whose career is skyrocketing now that she’s been nominated for a prestigious award. Jianhua has also been earmarked for a promotion at work and is covering for a sick colleague, but the arrival of a new teacher threatens to dangerously unbalance the carefully won equilibrium of the Gu family.

Miss Shen (Dong Qing) is indeed a harbinger of social change. The polar opposite of Huifang, Miss Shen is a hippyish free spirit who plays the guitar and sings folk songs in a local cafe with her boyfriend. She teaches the children English through singing songs and playing games, always cheerful and energetic with an adorable smile and easy going personality. Xiaoyang proves himself unusually astute for his years when he misinterprets an innocent scene between Miss Shen and his father, correctly guessing that Jianhua has developed a mild crush on the lovely young woman though perhaps not realising that Miss Shen is merely naive and entirely oblivious to her boss’ ulterior motives.

The camera first catches Xiaoyang caught between two football teams, standing motionless and staring vacantly ahead. He remains caught between two worlds while prompted a little early towards the compromises of adulthood as he experiences the moral outrage of realising his rigid, authoritarian father maybe breaking all the rules of conventional morality by stepping out on his mum. A victim of China’s one child policy, he is often intensely lonely, left alone at home with nothing to do but study while his mother is out rehearsing and his dad increasingly staying out late to offer “guidance” to Miss Shen.

Xiaoyang’s loneliness finds a mirror in the grumpy old man from across the way, Zheng (Ku Pao-Ming), who appears to have fallen out with his family and is missing his own absent grandson, Bao. Zheng picks up the fatherly responsibilities Jianhua has failed to fulfil – supporting Xiaoyang in his football dreams, giving him little bits of life advice, listening intently to his worries regarding his parents’ marital problems without trying to sugarcoat the seriousness of the issues or making a pretence of humouring a perspicuous little boy as they turn detective and catch Jianhua in the act but just miss out on his humiliating defeat and the epiphany which accompanies it as he is forced to confront the fact that he has become a sad old man. Jianhua’s major problems stem from an intense lack of self confidence as his growing son begins to reject his rigid authority and his wife’s increasing success punches a hole through his male pride. Temporarily boosted by the possibility of a promotion, he decides to try rebelling by chasing a younger woman who is very much not his type, little knowing that she sees him only as a venerable teacher and is shocked by his improper interest in her.

Meanwhile change is on the horizon everywhere. The courtyard is earmarked for “redevelopment”, and Mr. Zheng’s family are constantly trying to convince him to come and live with them in the city. By the end of the summer everything will have changed, some things for the better and some perhaps not but there will at least be a shift as each is forced into a reconsideration of their present circumstances. End of Summer is gentler than its title would suggest, a wistful look back one dramatic summer in the childhood of a sensitive little boy, but what it lacks in impact it makes up for with sincerity and a good deal of warmth.


End of Summer was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Zhou Quan from the 2017 Busan Film Festival.

Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Xin Yukun, 2017)

wrath of silence posterNature red in tooth and claw – life in the arid Northlands of modern China is surprisingly bloody in Xin Yukun’s The Coffin in the Mountain followup, Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, Bào Liè Wúshēng). The film’s Chinese release has, apparently, been indefinitely delayed for unclear reasons but it’s easy to see what might have given the censors occasion for pause in this tale of missing children, corrupt businessmen, and the relentless lusty greed of the new middle classes. A voiceless everyman forced away from his family by a series of unfortunate events, returns to look for his missing son but finds only a malevolent darkness invading the corners of his once peaceful rural mountain town.

In the winter of 2004, a small boy watches his sheep whilst building a small rock tower and drinking from his Ultraman flask. A short while later, his dad, Baomin (Song Yang), is pulled away from a fistfight at the bottom of a coal mine by a phone call from his wife informing him that their son has gone missing. Baomin drops everything and goes home but he’s still persona non grata in the small mountain village after stabbing the local chef in the eye with a lamb bone during a fight over Baomin’s refusal to sign over his land to developers hoping to open a coal mine.

Baomin’s path crosses with that of two other men, gangster-like mining magnate Chang (Jiang Wu) who has recently been “acquitted” of running illegal operations, and Chang’s lawyer, Xu (Yuan Wenkang), a conflicted single parent. Baomin and Xu are at opposite ends of China’s recently born class system – one educated, successful, and inhabiting the new pristine cities, the other literally rendered voiceless by an act of violence, poor, and living an antiquated rural life in a desert wasteland. Chang exists in the no man’s land between them as an example of the new elite – his life is one of Westernised elegance in his smart study and wood panelled drawing room with its deer heads on the walls. Yet it’s not business acumen which underpins his success but thuggery and a thorough disrespect for conventional morality.

There is a double irony in Baomin’s life in that his original objection to the coal mine has sent him straight into one. Owing vast compensation to the chef whose eye he ruined as well as needing money to pay for his sickly wife’s medical treatment, Baomin has little choice but to leave his farm and travel to a distant city where he can earn the money he needs to pay for his various responsibilities. Not only are the coal mines ripping up the landscape, they’re destroying families firstly through forced absences and secondarily through disease born of industrial pollution.

This veniality is all too plain in Chang’s ostentatious display of needless slaughter as he sits at a large dining table entirely covered in plates of raw meat ready to be sizzled in Chang’s favourite hot pots while a finely tuned slicer runs in the background churning out an endless supply of repurposed flesh. Chang’s overwhelming need for consumption is less about hunger than conquest as his hunting hobby proves but the trophies on his walls are as fake as the hairpieces which cover his receding hairline. The force which drives him is not so much need as vanity, fear, and insecurity. Desperate to be hunter and not hunted, he has abandoned all morality and will stop at nothing to ensure his place at the table is secure.

Baomin will stop at nothing until he finds his son. The film’s title, ironically enough, includes a slight pun in its first two characters which are pronounced “Bao” and “Lie” (the name of Baomin’s son) but mean “violence” and “spilt” while the characters of Baomin’s name (保民) mean protect and citizenry. Baomin is a violent man. According to his wife he was always fond of a fight even before rendering himself mute, but it has to be said that violence is, in his voiceless state, his most efficient method of communication. Flashing pictures everywhere he goes, Baomin chases visions of his son, haunted by small boys in Ultraman masks, fighting monsters far more real than the tokusatsu hero’s usual foes.

Fable-like in execution, the final revelations are heavily foreshadowed though dual meanings are plentiful as in a small boy’s innocent assumption of a classic Ultraman pose which looks eerily like something else to those with a guilty conscience, planting the seed of doubt as to whether it really was quite that innocent after all. Xin shoots with Lynchian surrealism as darkness seems to creep idly into the frame and then hover there, threatening something terrible, like the manifestation of willingly unseen truths. The rapid pace of social change has brought with it a loss of morality that endangers the foundation of society itself, sacrificing the young on the altar of greed while the state turns a blind eye to systemic corruption and cowards save their own skins rather than ease the suffering of others. Filled with a quiet rage mediated through melancholy poetry, Wrath of Silence takes a long, hard look into that creeping darkness but finds the darkness looking back with accusing eyes.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles)