The healthcare system depicted in 2018 Chinese drama Dying to Survive reads like a science fiction novel. It is a force that systematically favours people with affluence. For those on the losing end of the spectrum, poverty becomes just as much as a death sentence as the life threatening illness being treated.
Based on a true story, Dying to Survive follows Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng), an unsuccessful Indian-oil salesman who turns to drug trafficking to fund his father’s medical expenses. He travels to and from India, working with a pharmaceutical company that offers a generic form of medicine for CML (chronic myelogenous leukemia) that is significantly more affordable than the Swiss treatment mandated in China.
Director Wen Muye imbues a palpable sense of pain throughout Dying to Survive, which speaks to the underprivileged suffering at the expense of a government that inadequately regulates Big Pharma. It is a touching and harrowing dissection of economic inequality that reads more like a primal scream that it does anything manipulative (looking at you Dallas Buyers Club).
Cheng realises his profiting at the expense of the poor makes him no better than the pharmaceutical companies profiting with the support of the government. His moral dilemma occurring late into Dying to Survive finds him transform from a confident, quasi-gangster into someone compassionate to the plight had by those excluded from fundamental healthcare rights. Cheng exists somewhere between The Godfather and Robin Hood.
An inability to remain stagnant in the face of mistreatment – whether it be CML related or in his battle for custody over his son – proves to be Cheng’s greatest strength and biggest vice, one that sees him bleed emotion so intensely that it results in violent outbursts. He handles many relationships in the film, dealing with folks that either care for patients living with CML or have the illness themselves. This paints a broader picture of the impact of a failing healthcare system and demonstrates impressive discourse from a film that is already well thought out.
Muye also dares to tackle the unwavering obedience by law enforcement. He does this not to be sinister, but to demonstrate the command that the Chinese propaganda machine has on instilling compliance. For many of those dealing with CML, it is not until they deal with a life-threatening illness that they dare question unethical policy. They must unfortunately suffer (body, mind and belongings-wise) to have their voices heard. “We are not afraid of the Police. We are dying!” yells one participant at a protest. To be silent would be to die an agonising death, with these grand proclamations made to voice the peoples’ rejection against authorities using intimidation to control.
Make no mistake, while there are scenes in Dying to Survive that will appear as discomforting (brief child nudity being one of them), the film’s message of solidarity to those denied equality under a national healthcare system connects at a deep human level. Dying to Survive is a sophisticated take on policy-failure that is handled with maturity and a stern optimism for improvement.