On the recommendation of several friends, my wife and I went to see China’s hit summer movie in Beijing last month. Called “Dying to Survive” in English — the Chinese title 《我不是药神》 translates as “I Am Not the Medicine God” — it’s an unusual blockbuster in that it’s not escapist action fare but a realistic social drama. It tells the story, loosely based on real events, of a Shanghai man who smuggled Indian generic cancer drugs for patients who could not afford the real thing.
It’s a pretty good movie and worth seeing (the print we saw in Beijing had English subtitles, so it’s accessible to non-Chinese viewers): it’s well shot, well acted, well edited, and if the tearjerker parts of the storyline are not too surprising, they are still moving and effective. The first half of the film is my favorite, thanks to its sympathetic and realistic depiction of the lives of people living at the margins of Shanghai’s glitzy society. The protagonist starts out as an obviously dodgy seller of supposed aphrodisiacs, and his partners in crime include a dancer in a club, a rural migrant working in a slaughterhouse and, most surprisingly, a Christian pastor.
But what’s really interesting about the film is how you can see the struggle between the demands of making popular art and satisfying official propaganda playing out in the open. How many dramatizations of social problems end by displaying on screen a detailed timeline of the government policy measures that decisively solved said social problem? (The Economist wrote a bafflingly wrong-headed article about the film, calling it “a radical departure from China’s film policy, which is to encourage the production of uplifting fare that presents the government in a good light.” They must not have stayed for the credits.)
At times “Dying to Survive” feels like two movies stapled together. When the main characters are on the screen, the tone is of low-key realism. But when the police and court system appear, everything changes: the actors are stiff and predictable, straight from central casting for one of China’s cookie-cutter state television dramas. The cops are upright, businesslike and effective, the judges wise and firm. They ensure that the drug smuggler is eventually brought to justice, and serves a prison sentence for his crimes. The message is: yes, high drug prices are a social problem, but that does not excuse breaking the law; the government will take care of things.
What’s more interesting is how the movie departs from the real-life story of Lu Yong, who did smuggle into China the Indian generic version of Novartis’ cancer drug Glivec (the drug did not have patent protection in India). Lu was himself a patient who needed the drug, while the movie’s protagonist Cheng Yong gets into smuggling because he needs the money, and then develops sympathy for the struggling patients over time. (Lu has publicly stated he was unhappy with being portrayed in this way, and said he had not been consulted or compensated by the producers of the movie.) This alteration is rather understandable, as it creates a more interesting story arc: Cheng Yong starts off as an unsympathetic character (he hits his ex-wife in an early scene) and gradually matures into a sympathetic one.
The real punchline is that Lu Yong never served a prison term for his smuggling. When he was brought before a court, the public outcry led the judges to release him. The true story, in other words, was even more like a movie than the movie: in the end, the morally upright hero is recognized for doing good deeds and praised rather than condemned. (In Lu Yong’s blog post about the movie, he says that the movie’s producers told him that a political leader had ordered that the movie play up the role of the government and play down individual heroics.) That courtroom scene would have been a triumphant climax for any other drama. But suggesting that popular morality can override the demands of the law was apparently a bit too dangerous.
I do think “Dying to Survive” is a successful piece of popular art, but it is one that shows very clearly the constraints under which it was made. For further reading, I recommend this piece by Richard Yu, in which he argues that it serves as a potential template for how Chinese movies can discuss social problems–as long as they celebrate the accomplishments of the government.