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)

An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, Hu Bo, 2018)

An elephant sitting still poster“It’s all about agony” a discredited adult figure intones midway into Hu Bo’s first (and sadly only) feature, An Elephant Sitting Still (大象席地而坐, Dàxiàng Xídì’érzuò). Latest in a long line of indie features to ask serious questions about the hypocrisies of the modern China, Elephant stops to wonder how one manages to live at all in world which has become so “disgusting” as to make life itself seem like a cosmic joke. In this “wasteland”, all that’s left of human connection appears to be a series of games of oneupmanship in which there must always be a loser and for which no one wants to take personal responsibility. Then again, they say there’s an elephant in a zoo in Manzhouli which has taken passive resistance to unnatural extremes but somehow survived all the world has thrown at it.

Four lives intertwine in the decaying industrial environment of a rundown town somewhere in Northern China. Petty gangster Yu Cheng’s (Zhang Yu) day gets off to a pretty bad start after he sleeps with his best friend’s wife only for him to return unexpectedly, spot Yu Cheng’s shoes in the hall, and then throw himself off the balcony in a fit of total despair. Meanwhile, teenager Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang) gets himself mixed up in his best friend’s altercation with school bully Yu Shuai (Yu Cheng’s little brother) over an (allegedly) stolen phone which ends in a scuffle and Yu Shuai tumbling down a set of stairs. Wei Bu decides to run and asks his female best friend Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen) to go with him, but she has troubles of her own in the form of a toxic relationship with her embittered mother and an ill-advised affair with the school’s married vice-principal. Lacking other options, Wei Bu turns to his genial next-door neighbour, Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), hoping to borrow some money but Wang is preoccupied with his declining family situation as his son and daughter-in-law attempt to force him out of his apartment and into a nursing home so they can move into the catchment area for a better school for Wang’s granddaughter.

Our four see themselves as walking dead, but are in some respects the last four standing. They wonder and they muse, asking why it is life has to be this way but unable to simply ignore the nagging threads of connection and human decency that those around them seem to have successfully eradicated. The older generation, having been betrayed by China’s rapid rise to economic prosperity, are cruel and embittered. They treat their children with contempt, smirking grimly in the knowledge that they will likely share the same fate. Yet they have managed to weather the storm, coming to an accommodation with the fact that life is disappointing and surviving even if in a form that makes survival just about as unpalatable as it’s possible to be.

For this survival, they have helped themselves to entitlement. This is a game of (occasionally literal) dog eat dog in which all that matters is winning no matter at what cost in order to avoid feeling like a nobody. Petty schoolboy thug Yu Shuai, learning a lesson from his disaffected brother, attempts to rule by fear and intimidation but finds his empire threatened by Wei Bu’s principled attempt to stand up for his friend. Wei Bu is a “loser” and his accidental “win” is a shock to the system that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down but revolution was not in Wei Bu’s game plan and his resistance is short lived. Alone and friendless, he sees no alternative but flight.

Wei Bu’s friend, who turns out to have been unworthy of his loyalty, later achieves a rare moment of existential ecstasy in having frightened off two goons with a gun he pinched from his father. He is overawed to have inspired such fear and sure that most never feel anywhere near as alive as he feels at this moment. Wei Bu is unimpressed by his dark philosophy, but perhaps understands it as a grim encapsulation of the world in which he lives. Yu Cheng too tacitly accepts that his society values the strong, but it becomes apparent that his pretence of coldness is just that. He claims to hate everybody, and his brother most of all, but he walks back into a room on fire to save a man he doesn’t know and for all his attempts to abnegate the responsibility for his friend’s death is clearly affected both by his decision and his own role within it.

Responsibility is something nobody wants to take. Yu Cheng blames his friend’s death first on his own individual will, and then on his greedy wife for the unnecessary economic burden she placed on him, and finally on an unrequited love whose rejection he claims sent him into the arms of his best friend’s girl, but finally he cannot escape his own sense of guilt as embodied by the grieving mother his moral failings have produced. Huang Ling’s teacher expresses a similar life philosophy when she presses him as to why the school did not call the police over Yu Shuai’s accident. He tells her that if he’d called the police he’d be “involved” which not something that he wants to be. Unfortunately for him, his decision to pursue an “affair” with a vulnerable teenager is going to get him in “involved” in several sticky situations, most of which he blames Huang Ling for as the girl who has “ruined” him. Like the elephant of the title, Huang Ling’s lover sits and watches as the world spirals out of control, unwilling to stop it for fear of being dragged into its never-ending cycle of destruction and disappointment.

Intense individualism has fostered not only selfishness, but a refusal of accountability. Everything is always someone else’s fault just as someone else must always lose in each and very encounter in order to avoid the sensation of being a “loser” oneself. Alone among the older generation, Wang retains his youthful sense of human feeling, but eventually even his will is worn away and he considers giving in and entering the retirement home even after visiting it and realising it is little more than death’s waiting room. His advice to the young echoes that of Huang Ling’s lover, that there is no escape from sorrow and an attempt to evade it through starting again somewhere else will lead only to double failure. The best thing, he tells them, is to believe in a better place and then never go there so as not to have your illusions of a kinder world shattered. Yet there are flickers of possibility, Wei Bu wants to see the elephant anyway even if it changes nothing. Hu wants to ask us if it’s possible to go on living if you discover that there is nothing to live for and perhaps he found his own answer for that, but there is hope here, if faint and compromised, in the thought of distant elephants enduring all with stoic grace.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of New Wave Films.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Rao Xiaozhi, 2018)

A Cool Fish posterThe genial loser is fast becoming a staple of contemporary Chinese cinema. Rao Xiaozhi’s second feature A Cool Fish (无名之辈, Wúmíng zhī Bèi) is the latest in a long line of comedies to make the “diaosi” world its home as a collection of disappointed and increasingly desperate failures become embroiled in a complex web of cosmological coincidence. China’s famously draconian censorship regulations ensure that the ending of this caper will be bittersweet at best, but even so a brief brush with violent crime does at least allow a bouncing back if only through hitting rock bottom and emerging with greater clarity.

Small town hicks “Bra” (Zhang Yu), short for “Cobra”, and Big Head (Pan Binlong) have talked themselves into a gangland future, planning a big city heist after getting their hands on a stolen gun and motorbike. Unfortunately, not everything goes to plan and they end up robbing a mobile phone shop next door to the bank rather than the bank itself because the security guard was too intimidating. Not only that, they manage to send their getaway bike into a tree while trying to escape by muddling the clutch with the accelerator meaning they have to escape on foot. Crawling in through an open window, they find themselves in the home of the spiky Jiaqi (Ren Suxi) who is paralysed from the neck down and completely unafraid to make use of her one remaining weapon – an extremely loud and imperious voice. Jiaqi is also the sister of widowed security guard Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin) who was once an auxiliary police officer and harbours a desire to get back on the force which he feels he could fulfil through investigating the robbery and retrieving the gun on his own initiative. Meanwhile, Xianyong’s boss, financially troubled property developer with a complicated family set up Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui), is on the run from gangsters to whom he has massive debts.

Like the cool fish of the title, Bra and Big Head are young men with impossible futures who find themselves cast out from mainstream society with no real way back in. No education, no connections, no job prospects or family – their futures look bleak. Bra sees himself as a gang boss in waiting even if Big Head is his only henchman, but the guys are no master criminals and despite their claims of working their way up in the crime world it’s clear they aren’t cut out for such cutthroat antics. Xianyong, by contrast, had opportunities but squandered them and then lost everything in a tragic turn of events for which he must bear some of the responsibility. Despised by his teenage daughter, humiliated by the gangsters chasing Gao Ming, and burdened by the guilt of having caused the accident that ruined his sister’s life, all Xianyong wants is to hit back and prove himself a someone, which means he’s coming for another pair of losers not so different from himself.

Rao Xiaozhi rolls the familial in with the political through rooting all of Xianyong’s various problems in his very male failures as a compromised father figure. Having lost his wife in a tragedy of his own making, Xianyong is resented by his daughter who has reverted to her mother’s maiden name out of shame while he engages in underhanded scams to bolster his fragile sense of self worth. Meanwhile, all Big Head dreams of is a small house in his hometown and to marry his childhood sweetheart, Xia (Ma Yinyin), who has come to the city in search of money. Big Head thinks she doesn’t want to marry him because he isn’t rich, but Xia’s reluctance turns out to be misplaced shame in having engaged in sex work and no longer seeing herself as good enough for the small town wholesomeness of a man like Big Head, never guessing he might go to such extreme lengths just to prove himself worthy of her.

Trapped by the crushing impossibility of life in a rapidly developing, relentlessly unfair, patriarchal, and conservative society each of our heroes takes desperate measures to enact their escape but quickly discovers that escape is a spiritual more than material matter and cannot be bought through transgression. This being China, crime cannot pay and so our guys cannot hope to emerge heroically from their less than heroic foray into gun toting criminality but even so you’d have to admit that their futures are brighter for having hit rock bottom and woken up with a better sense of self and a degree of forward motion. Rao’s ramshackle world of lovelorn little guys daring to dream of a (modestly) brighter future perfectly captures the bleak romanticism of the “diaosi” phenomenon and proves strangely difficult to resist save for its crushingly “necessary” finale.


Currently on limited release in UK Cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

International trailer (English subtitles)