Go Away Mr. Tumor is a film full of laughs about a woman who is very ill. This might sound questionable, but the people in the cinema where I saw it (Cineplex Odeom Forum) seemed to like it a lot. It worked for me, too! On top of that, Go Away Mr. Tumor, is drawing huge audiences in China. (Variety says it earned “$29.7 million in four days.”
The main character in Go Away Mr. Tumor is Xiong Dun, aka Bearton – “Xiong like bear, Dun like Newton,” she says – a graphic artist who is 29 but fast approaching 30, and comparing herself to others who did great things at that age, or at least started to do them. (The long list includes computer guys Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and writer Haruki Murakami.)
In the first few scenes, she is so very perky and quirky that I felt annoyed, and feared that I’d made a mistake by going to see the film. False alarm, though; things picked up quite quickly.
While entertaining her friends, in her very nice apartment, Xiong Dun (Bai Baihe, who also uses the name Fay Bai) collapses and ends up in a hospital. The first sight she sees upon waking are the eyes and long eyelashes of Dr. Liang (U.S. actor Daniel Wu.) All right then! Things are not so bad after all. They seem better still after he takes off his surgical mask.
Xiong spends more time dreaming and daydreaming about Dr. Liang, and figuring out how to get more of his attention, than she does thinking about her health problem, which turns out to be quite grave when her test results come back. She obviously thinks that being a patient is a pretty good thing; it allowed her to meet him, after all. There’s a delicate balance here; her craving for attention is almost puppyish, but she’s not pathetic in any way. And she’s quite cute, with her big eyes and gamine haircut. If not for those pesky doctor-patient taboos, who knows what might happen?
Daniel Wu plays Dr. Liang as a guy who’s very serious and very professional, but also very caring. He lives in a bit of a bubble though – he’s astonished to learn that his subordinates are afraid of him. He’s also very busy and mindful of all the proprieties. He gently explains to Xiong that it’s his job to look after her and her job to have faith in him. There doesn’t seem to be any possibilty of more than that. And yet. . .
The two characters do have a lovely rapport. Dr. Liang enjoys listening to Xiong’s stories about her childhood, and her rationale for her sunny outlook on life, even in the face of adversity. (Now and then, I did think that her optimism was a bit farfetched, but hey, some people really are like that. Also, yeah, that “trust me, have faith” thing is more than a little retro and patriarchal, but. . . )
Dream and fantasy sequences add much appeal to Go Away Mr. Tumor. Many are laugh-out loud hilarious, though with hindsight others don’t seem quite as funny as they had been.
In Xiong’s dreams, zombies are a metaphor for her illness. At first, she fights them alone, like a superhero in a video game, or a Marvel movie, wearing a cape, flying around via wirework and firing two guns at once like Chow Yun Fat in an old John Woo movie. Later, when a zombie has her in a chokehold, Dr. Liang appears, dressed all in black, armed with a crossbow, to save her with one well-timed, well-placed arrow. Pow! Peng! Cheers from the audience! (Spoiler, sorry!)
Another scene mocks the international popularity of romantic Korean TV dramas. Xiong, wearing adorable furry earmuffs, stands in a park amidst falling snowflakes. As she starts to fall over backwards, in a slow motion swoon, Dr. Liang appears, clad in a quietly elegant camel-hair coat. He catches her gracefully with one arm while stopping the snowfall with a masterful, magical snap of his fingers. “Oppa!” Xiong exclaims. (It means “big brother,” but it’s also what Korean girls call their boyfriends, and what fans write on messageboards devoted to their crush. Don’t ask me how I know.) As a further nod to Korea’s powerful influence, Xiong gives Dr. Liang some Korean hand lotion, to repair the damage done by his frequent hand washing. (He keeps it in an office drawer with his British tea.) Korea has its share of medical dramas, the “trust me, have faith” likely appears there, too.
Xiong’s friends are a loyal, supportive and entertaining bunch, with some quirks of their own. They visit her often in the hospital, and gleefully help her with an elaborate, spur-of-the-moment prank against her obnoxious ex-boyfriend.
The film is based on the real-life experiences of cartoonist Xiang Yao. (Xiong Dun/Bearton was her pen name, which she chose because bears were her favourite animal.) She had already written several comic books before she became ill; an article on the web site China.org.cn says that her other books were about “teenage love, weight-loss, living the single life and her lifelong idol Michael Jackson.”
Once she became sick she wrote an online comic to raise money for her treatment and share her ordeal with her fans. (While she is often seen sketching in the film, the book is not actually mentioned.) In addition to Go Away Mr Tumor, various articles have rendered the English translation of the book’s title as Go To the Devil, Mr. Tumor, Be Gone, Mr. Tumor, Get out, Mr. Tumor, even F*** Off, Mr. Tumor! The article goes on to say that “More than one million books of the cartoons were sold, and the series inspired millions of people with its optimism and courage.” It includes this quote from Xiang: “I hope my drawings can entertain people and bring positive energy to me and to others. I am happy and delighted that they can enjoy it.”
BTW: The actors chosen to play her loving parents look quite a bit like their real-life counterparts.
Go Away Mr. Tumor (Gun dan ba! Zhong liu jun)
125 min., in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Director: Han Yan
Cast: Bai Baihe, Daniel Wu, Zhang Zixuan, Li Yuan, Liu Ruilin, Cheng Yi, Liu Lili, Li Jianyi, Temur Mamisashvili, Joel Adrian
In Montreal, Go Away Mr. Tumor is being shown at Cineplex Odeon Forum Cinemas. It’s also being shown in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, in several U.S. cities, and in New Zealand and Australia.