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 cost 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)

Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jia Zhangke, 2018)

Ash is purest white poster 1Jia Zhangke returns to the world of crime for a slice of jianghu blues in his latest chronicle of modern China through the eyes of its ordinary, downtrodden citizens. Self referential in the extreme, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女, Jiānghú Érnǚ) is a sad story of conflicting values and missed connection as a lovelorn woman proves herself too good, too pure, and ultimately too strong for the weak willed man she can neither love nor abandon. Times change and feelings change with them. To survive is not enough but integrity comes at a heavy price in a land where everything is for sale.

Echoing the time jumping narrative of Mountains May Depart, Jia opens in 4:3 and in 2001 as Qiao (Zhao Tao), sporting a black Cleopatra-esque haircut (the same as that worn by the identically named heroine of Jia’s own Unknown Pleasures from 2002) takes the bus into town. The first lady of the local “jianghu” underworld, Qiao is the devoted righthand woman of petty gang boss Bin (Liao Fan), enjoying the loyalty, honour, and respect of all in the slightly depressing environs of a small corner of dusty Datong. Bin is a walking monument to the idea of “jianghu” as mediated through Hong Kong action movies, swaggering around with a gun in his belt to prove that he’s the top dog in this tiny town. To live by jianghu is know that someone is always coming and when another prominent gangster is offed by young thugs, it’s not long before they come knocking on Bin’s door. Humiliatingly thrashed in the main square, Bin is only saved by a heroic intervention from Qiao who takes up his gun and fires into the air, a look of imperious authority on her face even as her eyes flicker with fear and excitement.

Qiao didn’t shoot anyone, but as the gun was illegal and she brought its presence to the notice of the police she gets into trouble anyway. A fierce devotee of the jianghu way, she refuses to give up Bin and insists the gun is hers and always has been. The gun was not hers in a real sense, and though she intends to lie in order to protect the man she loves from her mistake in firing it, spiritually speaking she and the gun are one. Having admired Bin’s skilful defusing of a petty gangster dispute without needing to use it, Qiao picks up the pistol and turns it over in her hands. The irony is, Qiao doesn’t need the gun but it completes her all the same, or at least completes the image she has of herself as an action movie heroine. Bin, however, has the gun because he doesn’t believe in himself in the same way Qiao does. He knows he’s weak and that his time is limited.

When Qiao is sent to prison for five years, she fully expects to find Bin waiting for her on the other side when she gets out. In the meantime Bin has proved true to form – he’s found himself another powerful woman to hide behind, though this time he’s chosen (or, in reality, is chosen by) one with good connections rather than fighting spirit. Bin has left the world of jianghu behind to try and make it in the rapidly developing capitalist economy, but as Qiao tells him when they finally reunite she had to live as a jianghu just to find him. Alone and friendless, betrayed by her love and disrespected by her new environment, Qiao turns to a cheeky strain of petty crime to get by – taking social revenge by attempting to blackmail random men over secret affairs, gatecrashing wedding parties for food, living by her wits on the streets and, if she’s honest, enjoying it.

Qiao is, in a sense, living in an imagined past. The frequent strains of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s seminal noir-tinged hitman drama The Killer underscore the yearning for an era of heroic bloodshed, brotherhood, and honour which never really existed outside of the movies. While Qiao grips her gun and fires in the air, Bin lights a melancholy cigarette watching Taylor Wong’s Tragic Hero, grumpily passive as always. Qiao saves Bin, more than once, but he can’t forgive her for it or reconcile himself to his own lack of resolve.

The film’s Chinese title, loosely translated as “the sons and daughters of jianghu” hints at the power of this double edged inheritance in which the archaic social codes of brotherly honour and loyalty are both barrier and bridge in an increasingly amoral society. Jia shows us a world of mine closures and forced migration, revisits the Three Gorges damn in which the past is sunk to pave way for the future, and introduces us to a modern day prospector with a big idea about UFOs. Bin, weak and opportunistic, doesn’t have the ability to ride the waves of China’s changing tides, but Qiao doesn’t have the will. Burned right through to her jianghu core, she sticks steadfastly to her code as she retreats to her spiritual home but owns her place within it even as the modern world rises up all around her. Qiao’s independence is both victory and defeat, an echo of the failed ideologies of a nation drunk on capitalism in which newfound freedom confuses and corrupts in equal measure. Nevertheless, there is something tragically romantic in Qiao’s lovelorn longing for a more passionate era in which the bonds between people still counted for something even if their demands were not always fair.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Full version of Sally Yeh’s theme from John Woo’s 1989 existential hitman noir The Killer

A or B (幕后玩家, Ren Pengyuan, 2018)

A or B poster 2It’s difficult not to read every film that comes out of the Mainland as a comment on modern China but there does seem to be a persistent need to address the rapid changes engulfing the increasingly prosperous society through the medium of cinema. A or B (幕后玩家, Mùhòu Wánjiā) is the latest in a long line of thrillers to ask if the pursuit of economic success has resulted in the decline of traditional morality. Life is, according to a mysterious voice on the other end of a walkie talkie, a series of choices – A or B, you or me. When someone says they have no choice, what they usually mean is that they have chosen me over you and expect the decision to be understood because if the situation were reversed, you would have done the same.

Corrupt financial billionaire Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) has been content to justify himself with this excuse. Having ousted his predecessor through blackmail and manipulation, he rose to be the head of a vast corporate empire while Zeng (Simon Yam), his former boss, committed suicide, a ruined and humiliated figure reduced to abject despair by Zhong’s campaign of malicious finagling. Despite his vast wealth, Zhong’s appetite for success remains unsatisfied while his wife Simeng (Wang Likun), disgusted by his ongoing descent into avaricious amorality, threatens to leave rather than watch him destroy himself.

With a number of schemes in operation, Zhong returns home drunk one evening to find his wife gone, collapsing into a restless drunken stupor. When he wakes up he discovers that he is now trapped inside his mansion – the windows have been boarded up and all the doors locked. Finding a walkie talkie in a box, Zhong is messaged by a mysterious voice who tells him that every morning at 9.30 (just as the financial news begins) he will be given a binary choice. Zhong must choose A or B or his kidnapper will set both in motion.

A or B is a complex kidnap thriller, but it’s also the story of a marriage and a metaphor for the compromises of modernity. Zhong, once an ambitious youngster from a humble background, claims he set himself on the road to ruin in pursuit of a “good life” on behalf of his wife. His wife, however, has a wildly different view of a “good life” to that of her husband. Simeng sacrificed her journalistic ambitious of becoming a war photographer to shift into technology in order to better understand Zhong only to be forced to give that up too when her discoveries of his duplicities began to alarm her. What Simeng wanted was less the huge mansion and expensive jewellery than a stable life of ordinary comfort with a loving and attentive husband who strived to understand her in the way she tried to understand him – something Zhong has completely failed to realise in his male drive to get ahead. Simeng threatens to leave, not because Zhong’s increasing moral depravity has killed her love for him, but that through leaving (and taking a number of his shares with her) she may be able to wake him up and put a stop to his headlong descent into amoral criminality.

Zhong has indeed fallen quite far as his first few A or B choices make clear. It doesn’t take him long to decide to throw a lifelong friend under the bus rather than further damage his business enterprise, only latterly making a frantic appeal to his captor to find out what happened to him. Confronted by the very real and often tragic consequences of his “choices” Zhong is forced into a reconsideration of the last decade of his life. Rather than ruminate, his first instinct is for action and so he sets about trying to escape his makeshift cage little knowing that his captor may have factored his ingenuity in to their original plan. He cannot however escape his final responsibility for becoming the man he is and faces the ultimate binary choice – to continue as he is and slide further down the road to ruin, or turn himself in to the police admitting his wrongdoing and pledging to start again on a more comfortable moral footing.

The identity of the kidnapper and their motives may be fairly easy to guess, but director Ren Pengyuan keeps the tension high as Zhong – played by comedy star Xu Zheng flexing his dramatic muscles, battles himself while trying to bridge the gap between the man he’d like to be and the one he has become. Fiercely critical of the empty materialism that has begun to define modern success, A or B insists that there is a choice to be made when it comes to deciding what gets sacrificed in the quest for prosperity. Zhong at least seems to have rediscovered what is important, reaffirming his commitment to an honest, if simpler, life warmed by the humble pleasure of wanton soup delivered by loving hands.


A or B opens in selected UK cinemas on 4th May courtesy of Cine Asia – check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2012)

love in the buff poster2010’s Love in a Puff was a delightfully low-key, slow burn romance in which two lonely smokers found each other over a back ally rubbish drum and a series of aimless text-based and ambulatory conversations. Jimmy and Cherie were both so diffident, fearful, and emotionally restrained that their grand love affair ended on a positive if ambiguous note, promising only to continue in forward motion. Where is there to go in a sequel? The same place again, apparently. Or, more precisely, Beijing.

So, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) have found true love, moved in together and are very happy. Except, Jimmy is still Jimmy and Cherie is still Cherie and so there are problems. Things come to a head when Jimmy forgets a dinner arrangement with Cherie’s family, invites her to a beach party that turns out to be a work engagement, and then unwisely tries to win an argument by “reminding” her who plays the bills. Unsurprisingly, when Jimmy returns home Cherie has gone back to her mother’s. Jimmy takes a job in Beijing and starts dating an air hostess only for Cherie to also get an unexpected transfer to the mainland capital.

More or less following the pattern of the first film but with the roles of the protagonists reversed, Jimmy and Cherie find themselves falling back into the same old routine as they’re marooned in an unfamiliar city. Jimmy, still immature and self-centred, may have started an accidental relationship with a stewardess his friend intended to molest on an aeroplane, but it’s essentially superficial (at least from his side) and once again he finds himself texting Cherie whilst bored with his girlfriend’s elegant friend set. Cherie, not over Jimmy (much as she’d like to be) and perhaps regretting her over hasty grand gesture, begins a tentative relationship with a sensitive millionaire, Sam (Xu Zheng), whose only defects seem to be an old-fashioned idea of chivalry and the fact that he is extremely bald.

Despite Sam’s obvious goodness, Cherie can’t let Jimmy go and is ultimately disappointed to find that some of his childish strangeness has rubbed off on her – in fact, the very qualities which Sam finds attractive are ones she associates with Jimmy. Back to sneaking around, bickering, and exchanging cryptic text messages the pair are left to wonder if anything has really changed. The problems are exactly the same – neither one is willing to trust the other enough to make a real go of things. Cherie, still a little over sensitive about the (very small) age difference between herself and Jimmy as well as her ticking clock, resents being made to feel like the old ball and chain when Jimmy plays the coward in lying to her to go out drinking with friends. Jimmy still fears confrontation too much talk to Cherie in a straightforward way and so they’re locked in continuing cycles of passive aggressive drama.

Once again Jimmy and Cherie are the main draw though their friends take on a slightly larger role. Eunuch (Roy Szeto) remains Jimmy’s worst enabler as he urges him to make a series of bad decisions in making a life in the mainland capital, though there is a potential happy ending for Cherie’s “plain” friend Brenda (June Lam) whose lack of looks was the butt of such mean-spirited humour in the first film. Transposing the action to Beijing Pang takes another look at modern love with its marriage markets full of old women sitting in parks with signs selling the virtues of their sons not to mention the terrible blind dates but even if the actions of the central couple lean towards the sordid as they re-engage in accidental adultery, the romance is always gentle, innocent, and sincere. Jimmy and Cherie bonded in a puff, but now they have to learn to love each other “in the buff”, warts and all or call it quits.

Pang wisely drops the documentary conceit though maintains the laid-back aesthetic and whimsical music as the ballad of Jimmy and Cherie continues. The various cameo appearances threaten to derail the low-key style of the drama but once again Pang manages to capture something youthful, fresh, and heartfelt even if not moving very much beyond the original.


Original trailer (Cantonese with traditional Chinese/English subtitles)