Dying to Survive
Xu Zheng, Gong Beibei, Wang Chuanjun, Zhou Yiwei
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…vitality and humanity, coupled with a universally engaging premise…
A low-level businessman on the make becomes something of a Big-Pharma Robin Hood in this Chinese box office hit (earning $450 million domestically).
Dying to Survive dramatises true life events, telling the tale of Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng), a Shanghai store owner who struggles to sell his dodgy Indian-imported erection pills to a dissipating clientele. Cheng Yong is engaged in a bitter divorce with his ex-wife Cao Lin (Gong Beibei) who’s looking to move overseas and take their young son, Xiaoshu (Zhu Gengyou) with her. To make matters worse, a routine meeting with divorce attorneys devolves into an aggressive tussle, culminating in Cheng’s Police Detective brother-in-law Cao Bin (Zhou Yiwei) threatening to lay a severe beating on him.
Broke and faced with estrangement from his young son, Cheng Yong discovers a potentially booming underground market for cheap medication to treat Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. He meets the eccentric Lv Shuoyi (Wang Chuanjun), a CML sufferer who inspires him to try and reinvigorate his sagging finances by (illegally) importing a generic brand of CML medication from an Indian Pharmaceutical manufacturer that sells it for a fraction of the cost of its absurdly overpriced counterpart (called Gleevec in the real world, it’s produced by Swiss Pharma company Novartis).
Hitting a wall when he initially attempts to shift the merchandise, Cheng Yong meets exotic dancer Liu Sihui (Tan Zhuo), whose own daughter is sick with CML and is in desperate need of the medication. Soon, with Liu Sihui’s help, Cheng Yong develops a motley network of distributors, who help him distribute the generic medication to the patients who need it.
Many reviewers have reductively termed this ‘a Chinese Dallas Buyers Club’, which although fairly accurate, gives short shrift to a lot of the genuinely enjoyable elements on offer here. Xu Zheng’s hapless and down-on-his-luck Cheng Yong is an appealingly shambolic character who makes taking the journey with him rewarding and at times, even moving.
It’s a testament to the talents of Director Wen Muye and his co-writer’s Han Jianu & Zhong Wei, that Dying to Survive has such a sense of vitality and humanity, coupled with a universally engaging premise in depicting the almost totalitarian stranglehold that big pharmaceutical companies have in most countries and the ethical vacuum in which they conduct their business: by denying the poor and the financially destitute any ability to afford even the most basic forms of life-extending medication.