A moneymaking scheme turns into a life-changing crusade in “Dying to Survive,” a dramedy loosely based on the true story of a Chinese man whose illegal importation of affordable generic drugs vastly improved the lives of many leukemia patients. Director and co-writer Wen Muye’s feature debut is a classy crowd-pleaser and an interesting example of a Chinese film that shows public protests and casts officialdom in a frequently unflattering light yet still received the stamp of approval from state censors.

This 2018 production grossed a staggering $450 million domestically and is just now opening in Western markets following a stellar run on the festival circuit. Released Aug. 9 in the U.S., “Survive” could conceivably increase its North American footprint with word-of-mouth and social media buzz, but was placed in theaters too far removed from tastemakers to hit the mainstream. It opens in Australia and New Zealand on Aug. 29.

The events depicted took place in the early 2000s when, much like the central character in “Dallas Buyers Club,” Chinese leukemeia patient Yu Long took matters into his own hands when faced with the impossible task of paying nearly $4,000 per month for medication manufactured by a foreign company. This film’s massive success has been credited with influencing changes in government policies regarding the supply and affordability of leukemia-fighting drugs.

The central character has been significantly re-imagined and renamed here as Cheng Yong (Xu Zheng “No Man’s Land”), a Shanghai shopkeeper who doesn’t have leukemia and sells Indian “love drugs” that no-one wants to buy. As we meet this scuzzy middle-aged guy, he’s broke and locked in a bitter fight with estranged wife Cao Lin (Gong Beibei), who wants to move overseas with their young son Xiaoshu (Zhu Gengyou). Following a fiery meeting with divorce lawyers, Cheng is threatened by brother-in-law Cao Bin (Zhou Yiwei), a hotshot detective.

There’s not much to laugh about in early segments, but Wen and co-writers Han Jianu and Zhong Wei get the smiles rolling once Cheng’s approached by Lv Shuoyi (Wang Chuanjun), an oddball with chronic myeloid leukemia. Lv says Cheng can save his business by smuggling pills from a factory in India that are exactly the same but one-twentieth the price of Glinic (a stand-in name for real drug Gleevic). Glinic is patented and sold by foreign business entity Nuowa (Swiss company Novatis, re-named), whose Chinese branch bosses smarmily dismiss noisy public protests calling for fairer pricing.

With money as his sole motivation, Cheng visits the sub-continent and sets things up. But customers are wary of the cheap alternative, and the venture appears doomed until he meets Liu Sihui (Tan Zhou, “End of Summer”), a pole dancer and single mother with a sick daughter. Liu has an influential voice in leukemia support groups and begins recommending the Indian product. In pacy montage-and-music sequences that are familiar but very well executed, Cheng’s pills start flying off the shelves and he’s soon swimming in a sea of cash. The upbeat vibe continues with the formation of Cheng’s sales team. His appealing accomplices include clergyman Father Liu (Yang Xinming) and Peng Hao (Zhang Yu, excellent), a troubled country boy with wild yellow hair.

“Dying to Survive” smartly balances good times and funny banter between these lovable law-breakers with the heart-breaking sight of patients bravely fighting and sometimes losing their battles after Cheng is forced to sell his business. Behind the hostile takeover is Zhang Changlin (Wang Yanhui), a sleazy shyster who’s peddled useless medications for years and was threatening to expose his rival. The film’s powerful turning point arrives when Cheng, who walked away from everyone with barely a second thought and became a rich factory owner, examines his conscience and finds his inner guardian angel. In rousing sequences, he not only re-enters the business with all guns blazing but sells the medication below cost.

Xu’s deeply felt performance, strengthened by dialogue that’s moving and rarely mawkish, make Chengs’s transformation believable and uplifting. His increasingly daring exploits are effectively intercut with the inevitable reappearance of Cao Bin, who starts questioning his role after being ordered by stern superiors to shut down the illegal drug business even if it is helping those in such desperate need.

Though it could have done with tighter editing in several scenes that linger too long after getting their messages across, “Survive” earns the tears many viewers will have shed by the time the law finally catches up with Cheng. Wang Boxue’s gritty photography and a score by Huang Chao that employs funky organ and zingy blues guitar riffs in upbeat scenes and subtle acoustic guitar and strings during heartrending moments are notable components of the film’s impressive technical presentation.

Film Review: ‘Dying to Survive’

Reviewed online, Adelaide, Aug. 14, 2019. Running time: 117 MIN. (Original title: “Wo bu shi yao shen”)

  • Production: (China) A China Lion (in U.S.), Beijing Culture (in China) release of a Dirty Monkey Films Group, Huanxi Media Group Ltd., Beijing Joy Leader Culture Communication Co., Beijing Universe Cultural Development Co., Beijing Talent Int'l Film Co., Shanghai Mountain of Flowers Films Co., Huanhuanxixi (Tanjin) Cultural Investments Co. production, in association with Shanghai Alibaba Pictures Co., Beijing United Entertainment Partners Culture & Media Co., Wanda Media Co., Youku Pictures Co., Beijing Joy Leader Investment Management Co., Jin Element International Media Beijing Co., Jiangsu Zhongnan Films Co., Beijing Qi Tai Ocean Culture & Media Co., Tianjin MaoYan WeYing Media Co., Tianjin No. 4 Film & TV Production Studio. (Int'l sales: Movie View Int'l, Beijing.) Producers: Liu Ruifang, Wang Yibing. Executive producers: Ning Hao, Xu Zheng.
  • Crew: Director: Wen Muye. Screenplay: Wen, Han Jianu, Zhong Wei. Camera (color): Wang Boxue. Editor: Zhu Lin. Music: Huang Chao.
  • With: Xu Zheng, Wang Chuanjun, Zhou Yiwei,Tan Zhuo, Wang Yanhui, Zhang Yu, Yang Xinming, Zhu Gengyou), Gong Beibi, Wang Jiajia, Li Naiwen. (Mandarin, English dialogue)