Editor’s Note: Go Away Mr. Tumor opened in limited theatrical release August 14, 2015. The film was recently announced as China’s Oscar foreign-language submission.
Yet another big commercial hit for actress Bai Baihe, this time directed by Yan Han, Go Away Mr. Tumor is much like its title: a balancing act of comedy and drama and the extremes of each one, as a young woman finds abruptly that she has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The woman is the late cartoonist Xiong Dun, the nom de plume of Xiang Yao, who passed away at the age of thirty in 2012 – a little over a year after she was diagnosed with the cancer. Xiong addressed and shared her experiences online through her comics and social media. Yan and company make the smart, thoughtful choice of embracing the emotional extremes of what Xiong underwent in order to capture above all her brave, infectious energy. From screwball zaniness to ordinary social gaffes, and from tense confrontations to tear-jerking confessions of love and friendship, Go Away Mr. Tumor touches upon all of these affecting situations, unapologetically and ultimately rather sensitively.
The first third of the film devotes itself to establishing Xiong’s hyperactive personality and imagination in the face of her hectic life as an illustrator for a small company; her young, exuberant lifestyle, shared with her three close friends; and Beijing bustle in general. The result is a constant teetering between lighthearted flirtations/daydreams and pathos, which is initially off-putting in its frenzied pace, buttressed as it is on cartoon-like special effects. This genre-bending, temperamental characteristic continues even after Xiong suddenly collapses and finds herself in a hospital undergoing a battery of tests to find out what is going on with her. It continues as Xiong, even in her uncertainty, persists in her flights of fancy and optimism; the latter triggered especially by the ever-so-serious and good-looking Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu), who quickly becomes an object of her affection at the hospital. For those who are not knowledgeable of what happened to Xiong, at this point the film maintains the trappings of an innocuous romantic comedy where love, life, and coupledom should presumably prevail – as witness Xiong’s daydream of her and Dr. Liang embracing as if they were in a K-drama (with Korean dialogue, too).
In this regard, however, and other scenes like it, the film reveals its satirical facet in its play with genres, as it takes jabs at the plethora of Asian films and television dramas that are simply awash with tears and pity (the 2000 K-drama Autumn in my Heart immediately comes to mind).
The film’s virtue is precisely the fact that it does not exactly follow the textbook structure of comedy and light in the first half and teary drama and darkness in the second half, by not making the film about Xiong’s suffering. Like the real Xiong herself and the way she channeled her battle with her disease head-on with humour and imagination through her online comics, so the film focuses on the lighthouses in her life: her very tight circle of friends, her parents, shared memories, Dr. Liang, and fellow patient/hospital roommate Emmy (Li Yuan), whose tough exterior she manages to break through to forge a new friendship. The desire to capture an eclectic, cosmopolitan, free spirit is ultimately what motivates the film’s patchwork tone and imagery, even as Xiong’s life contracts. The repetition of long shots of Beijing traffic snaking its way for blocks on end, viewed from Xiong’s and her friend’s apartment, attest to Xiong’s increasing distance from the outside social world, ever moving out of her reach. The surprising aspect here is how, through the gloss of special effects and romcom antics, the quality of frankness in dealing with a terminal condition shines through. Though Xiong metaphorically finds herself placed in an aquarium to watch the world go by, in it but removed from it, as her condition progresses, she and the film stubbornly refuse the disease to take center stage.
Surprisingly, the film does not amply make use of Xiong’s actual illustrations to help flesh out her character and experiences; the exception is during the closing credits. On a related note, the film does not dwell too much on Xiong’s vocation, either. We see mere glimpses of her office life as an illustrator early in the film – admittedly due to the fact that she is soon fired from her job. But this stripping away of public layers of Xiong’s life is actually in keeping with the overall focus on the personal ties that she weaves around her, the tenacity of these ties, and the hopefulness that it inspires in those whom she meets, particularly Dr. Liang and Emmy.
Binding and embodying these various degrees of comedy and drama is actress Bai as Xiong. Bai proves here why she has become a stalwart box office presence in China since debuting in 2011. The film is a virtual showcase of the many faces, looks, and styles of Bai, but also of her acting range and boundless liveliness. In the course of the film, Bai conveys well the multidimensional nature of her character’s headspace as she gets to know her condition. The patchwork tone and imagery thus also serves to place the spectator within her subjectivity, from her romantic reveries about Dr. Liang to being in the dark about what is ailing her, and to her sometimes inexplicably undying positivity despite her condition, so that ultimately the disease itself is not the story, but that of Xiong, the person.