Festival hit Dying to Survive mingles social commentary with goofball comedy

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      Starring Xu Zheng. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      Based on a real-life case that unfolded back around 2006, Dying to Survive is the second film opening this week to look at inequities in the Chinese health-care system—and to still find real humour in the subject.

      It helps that this one stars round-faced comic actor and director Xu Zheng, known for the goofy Lost in Thailand, as Yong Cheng, a slovenly, recently divorced seller of Indian “aphrodisiacs” who gets drawn into Shanghai’s underground market for drugs people really need.

      The reason they need ’em is because of chronic myeloid leukemia, and the reason poor sufferers can’t get the best drug (Gleevec in real life, but called Glinic here) is because it’s priced right through the roof. When one geeky patient (tall, skinny Wang Chuanjun) informs “Brother Yong” that the drug is generically manufactured near his herb source in India, he eventually sneaks some of the good stuff into China.

      As in Dallas Buyers Club, Yong soon assembles a cast of colourful (if here undeveloped) enablers to help circulate the life-giving capsules. He becomes a local hero, setting him on an inevitable collision course with the cops—most especially with his ex-brother-in-law (soulfully handsome Zhou Yiwei), a detective already mad at him for his role as a deadbeat husband, dad, and son. (Yong has an invalid father to support, on top of everything else.)

      At a certain point, though, the detective starts wondering if a crackdown on generic drugs is really the way to go. “The law outweighs sympathy,” yells his hard-ass chief, in response. And that’s the point of order raised by young director Wen Muye, who leavens the social commentary with effective doses of sentiment and physical comedy.

      Some elements feel padded out, and others unexplored. (The female characters are barely present.) But the film was a big hit in China and on the festival circuit.

      It ends with the somewhat self-serving news that Beijing fixed this particular problem, but Dying is still remarkable for frankly addressing a serious issue from the ground up.