Starring: Xu Zheng, Tan Zhuo, Wang Chuanjun
Director: Wen Muye
Running Time: 117 mins
Dying To Survive is a Chinese film about a man selling ‘Indian god oils’ who finds himself becoming the main importer of an Indian drug used to treat leukaemia. With patients suffering with overpriced medication in China, he grows in wealth and stature, but soon finds himself in conflict with the authorities and pharmaceutical companies.
Not only is Dying To Survive a really good film, with strong emotional drama and a riveting, thought-provoking thematic focus, but it’s also representative of a growing trend in Chinese cinema that’s seeing more and more films offer up new and challenging ideas, even if they may prove controversial under a system that, only a few years ago, was stamping out almost all controversial subject matters.
We’ll get onto that in a bit, though, because first, I want to talk about why Dying To Survive itself stands out so much. Above all, it’s that subject matter that really hits hardest, not only because of its controversial nature, but also because of the way the film deals with it in both a personal context as well as a wider social one.
Social dramas often have the depth and intrigue to make for an interesting watch, but nothing compares to when a film is able to weave a personal story into a wider social context. Dying To Survive does this pretty much perfectly, with a fascinating focus on the morals and controversies surrounding medical care in China, but also a riveting and deeply emotional look at the man who tried to change the situation for the better.
With a stellar lead turn from Xu Zheng, the film impresses right from the off as you come to learn about a man who unexpectedly becomes involved in the fight for affordable medication from a huge portion of society. And yet, while he recognises the plight of those suffering because of overpriced medication in the country, he’s still in it principally for the money, and the chance to use his own connections and knowledge to make a bit of a difference, but get rich at the same time.
That element of the main character is really what makes this film tick, particularly through the first half, as it features the social consciousness and heavy-going real-world emotion of a great social drama, yet its use of an equally greedy and more self-centred man as the so-called saviour of so many people makes for a fascinating contrast to follow throughout, with the difficult balancing act between financial gain and doing something that’s right proving a riveting and deeply morally ambiguous key theme throughout.
It’s that depth, intelligence and ambiguity that makes Dying To Survive so much more fascinating than a simple social drama, because while it offers up a fascinating and often devastating perspective on the realities of a large group of people suffering in modern society – the portrayal of the almost unthinkable scale of the problem in this film is particularly striking – it also keeps itself grounded in the real world, and tackles more difficult ideas on both sides of the argument, rather than simply pitting good guys against bad guys.
That’s why I really liked Dying To Survive, but what I think is particularly outstanding about the film is further representative of the rapidly changing landscape of Chinese cinema. While the situation portrayed in this film has certainly changed over the last ten years, a film like Dying To Survive could never have been made in China ten years ago.
Up until very, very recently, domestic Chinese films – particularly dramas of this ilk – were almost universally required to feature a degree of ‘social worthiness’, whether that be a direct allegory to the strengths of Chinese society, or encouragement to viewers on how to be good citizens.
Therefore, a film like this, which not only has such a clear and striking critique on a major problem in Chinese society – that of overpriced medication as well as the laws that create such a problem – as well as a main character who isn’t always a purely good, selfless man, would have been immensely controversial, and almost certainly not allowed into cinemas a decade ago.
Now, I’m not saying that this sort of change in Chinese cinema is more widely indicative of real changes in the country, but what is interesting is that the country is now able to produce films of a really striking, challenging and original nature, really paving the way for it to rival the likes of the United States and others with its cinema. Films like Dying To Survive have the intelligence, originality and thought-provoking drama to hit home with absolutely anyone from around the world, and I’m sure that its success in both China as well as internationally will open the floodgates for many, many more new great film to come, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.0 overall.