Few films about terminal illness are as hyperactive and uproarious as “Go Away Mr. Tumor,” a live-action adaptation of mainland Chinese manga artist Xiong Dun’s illustrated book chronicling her struggle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This exuberantly styled, fantasy-filled dramedy confirms helmer Han Yan’s considerable talent for satisfying local demand for glossy escapism, while still cultivating vivid characters whose preoccupations resonate with mainland urbanites. Notwithstanding its bubblegum visuals and relentlessly perky hijinks, the yarn proceeds naturally toward a touching conclusion without high-handed lurches into tragedy or mawkishness. After a month-long run, the pic enjoyed healthy B.O. of about $80 million, proving that lead actress Bai Baihe (“Monster Hunt”) is a miracle drug in mainland cinema.
The film owes its emotional credibility to the real-life figure of Xiang Yao (pen name Xiong Dun), who in 2011 began to share how she coped with her illness on her blog and Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). Her playful, self-mocking attitude won over as many as 3 million followers before she died in 2012 at the age of 30.
Incidentally, Han’s sophomore feature, “First Time,” also centered on a heroine with a fatal affliction, in that case respiratory paralysis. Although popular taste in China prevents him from fashioning the kind of hip, sweet-sadness-of-death-themed romances like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the helmer-scribe still tries to tweak old formulas — as he did by switching perspectives in “First Time,” and as he does with an unconventional romantic arc in “Go Away Mr. Tumor.”
For those familiar with Bai’s repertoire, the first act appears to reshuffle elements from her breakout hit, “Love Is Not Blind.” As in that romantic comedy, she plays a bullied junior staff in a quasi-creative sector, who’s so infatuated with her douchebag b.f. (Shen Teng) that only she fails to spot his infidelity from a mile away. Fortunately, like every mainland romantic-comedy heroine, Xiong Dun can fall back on her quirky but doting BFFs: amateur boxer Lao Zheng (Cheng Yi), metrosexual co-worker Xiaoxia (Liu Ruilin) and workaholic masochist Emmy (Zhang Zixuan).
Audiences may recoil from the ditziness overload and shouty performances in the first 20 minutes; after Xiong’s social blunders at a wedding banquet and at her office, one is inclined to agree with her b.f that he can’t take her anywhere, least of all down the aisle. Even when she’s hospitalized after passing out at her own birthday party, the high-octane tempo and buoyant mood don’t let up .
Instantly crushing on her clinician, Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu), she wishfully anticipates the moment when he will have her disrobe so he can examine her — a running joke that gets funnier with each treatment. As though overmedicated, her mind races with crackpot ideas. Most of her fantasies are mere excuses to shift the film’s mise-en-scene beyond the hospital confines to ritzy restaurants, luxury boutiques and other glamorous settings considered requisite eye-candy for mainland moviegoers. But occasionally, they are charmingly offbeat, as when she envisages herself and Dr. Liang in a Korean TV melodrama.
Given the film’s high-pitched tone it’s a relief that it doesn’t lay on the maudlin melodrama with a trowel. Hardly lingering on Xiong’s diagnosis or her worsening condition, helmer Han draws emotional heft from her clumsily budding friendships with other patients, like the inexhaustibly prankish tyke Mao Dou and the chain-smoking, cussing Jezebel Xia Meng (Li Yuan, mesmerizing). Even as it provides Mao and Xia with backstories that are both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, the screenplay employs a finger-light touch that leaves the characters’ futures open-ended. Likewise, notwithstanding Xiong’s cheeky come-ons to Dr. Liang, their true feelings are kept to a low simmer, even as he comes to admire and find personal solace in her courageous nonchalance.
As the inevitable end draws near, even the dream visions and fantasies — which earlier amounted to no more than loopy farce — assume poignant undertones, such as a musical number reveling in post-chemo bald pates, or a “Walking Dead”-themed hallucination induced by defibrillation during a critical moment. And if the coda shows Xiong at her effervescent, life-affirming best, scenes of her girlishly clinging to her parents would make anyone tear up.
This is not the first time Bai has played the dying girl. She endured cancer in “A Wedding Invitation,” as well as amnesia and a brain tumor in “The Stolen Years,” with stoical ebullience. Here, she initially falls back on her trademark cutesy flakiness, but later on conveys Xiong’s reluctance to burden others by maintaining strenuously high spirits. Despite being habitually cast in heartthrob roles, such as in Johnnie To’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Wu doesn’t often engender much passion in romantic scenarios. Here, he’s more at ease as the dour but dependable medic, and delivers a lived-in performance that’s easy to warm to.
As with Han’s previous work, the visual design is rich on an average budget, but lighting is uniformly ultra-bright, whether outdoors, inside the hospital or in fantasy sequences. Editor Yu Hongchao’s pacing seems to cater to viewers with ADHD.