Revitalizing “Dying to Survive”: A True Story’s Powerful Legacy

Based on a true story, Wen Muye’s Chinese drama-comedy released in 2018, “Dying to Survive,” shares a story steeped in the realities of neglectful healthcare systems, serving as a kind of exposé that has had lasting effects. The audience gains awareness alongside Cheng Yong (Zheng Xu), a middle-aged man selling aphrodisiacs to make ends meet; his misery is unending: his wife is divorcing him and wants to take their son abroad with her, his ill father needs care and money, and he can barely pay rent. 

Upon discovering the unaffordable pricing of Glinic—a miracle treatment drug for chronic myeloid leukemia—in China, Yong discovers a way to both help people beat the high prices to deliver to a high-demand market and make an astounding profit. He sets this scheme up and gets it running with partner in crime Lv Shouyi (Wang Chuanjun), himself suffering from leukemia, pole-dancer Liu Sihui (Tan Zhuo), mother of a young daughter with leukemia, Pastor Liu (Yang Xinming), the group’s round-the-clock English translator and community’s part-time pastor, and “Yellow Hair” (Yu Zhang), a rural runaway kid. It is while running this scheme—beating the cops, and their allegations of counterfeit drugs, and worming into online CML patient support groups to draw in more customers—that Cheng Yong becomes aware of the ugly intersections between capitalist greed and healthcare.

The movie is delightful in its ability to fabricate a comedic and action-packed drama from a real story that is grounded in common folks’ struggles with adequate healthcare pricing. We follow “Yellow Hair”’s chase scene, reminiscent of Aladdin’s endearing introductory chase sequence in Disney’s “Aladdin”, but simultaneously witness dramatic police hunts framed with moody black and blue lighting. And through it all, director Muye glorifies nothing, keeping to the storyline and authenticity of the humble and struggling characters, using their witty and amusing nature to bring hope and light to the movie’s sinister undertones.

But perhaps the use of comedy is this movie’s shortcoming. While the utilization of blockbuster-style comedy—through silly, light-hearted characters—does tenderly reveal the humanity of these desperately fighting lawbreakers, it seems to water down Muye’s ability to explore and develop richer conflicts and motivations. Take, for instance, the moment roles are reversed for pole-dancer Sihui as Cheng Yong gestures for her to sit down and, with the help of a fat wad of hundreds, watch a man take the pole for once. Sihui shouts for him to take his pants off, at first in jest—then her screaming becomes indignant, filled with vengeance and anguish. Before cutting to the next scene, the camera observantly catches the bitter set of her mouth, hopefully angling up into her eyes. A soft light is reflected, captured by Sihui’s tears; this glimmer becomes reflective of her hope and fledgling empowerment. The camera’s observation here is to be commended—the moment is heartening as we see her learn the dignity money has bestowed upon her. But disappointingly, this internal journey is never returned to in the second half of the movie, whose plot is exclusively driven by the events of the story, with humor used as a substitute for sentimentality. I can only think this was a missed opportunity.

Though the plot of this movie is rather simple, leaning into the antihero archetype, it proved that a movie doesn’t need to be a cinematic masterpiece to move people—both emotionally and to action. Upon release, the movie landed an astronomical $450 million box office, making it the third-highest-grosser in China in 2018, according to “The Hollywood Reporter.” The movie’s reach widened from there, finding its impacts on government policy on counterfeit drugs, which eventually allowed for the decriminalized importation of CML treatment drugs from India, saving thousands of lives. As is revealed by additional notes before the credits roll at the end of the film, many elements of the movie are based on a true story the true story of textile trader— by the name of Lu Yong, himself diagnosed leukemia, according to the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center of the Ohio State University—smuggling unproven CML treatment drugs into China as a reaction to the intolerably high prices of the certified and legal version, called Gleevec, sold in the country. To see bravery from a marginalized people, not cowed by the law, brought to life on screen—I would be surprised if I hadn’t been moved to tears sitting in the middle of the library as school life crawled on, all around.

While presenting nothing novel in its plotline and cinematography, a straightforward and confrontational movie was all that was needed to affect change. For all of this, I readily deliver a 3.5/5 rating. Let this movie, dug out from the archives across the Atlantic, be a testament to the galvanizing power of movie production and art-making in the unyielding reality of its story.

Editor’s Note: Ashley Song ’23 is an Illustration Editor for The Phillipian.