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The Donor

In a rundown part of a city in China, a man named Yang Ba (Ni Dahong) struggles to support his family. He runs a tiny shop where he repairs mopeds, often getting paid in food rather than money, much to the annoyance of his wife, Hua. They have a teenage son, Bao, who's about to take his all-important college exams. Getting into a top college is his only chance to find a much more prestigious job than his father's, perhaps working at one of the big state-run firms, but that will take money Yang doesn't have.

So Yang has to think outside the box. As luck would have it, though, he has one unusual advantage: he's a donor match for a woman named Xiaohui who urgently needs a kidney transplant, and Xiaohui's brother Li Daguo (Qi Dao) is very wealthy. How he earned his money remains a mystery, but he certainly has some ruthless friends, and you don't usually get to stay in presidential suites or live in houses decorated almost entirely in gold because you're a good person.

But Li is polite and generous to his benefactor, giving Yang 300,000 Chinese yuan (about 45,000 in U.S. dollars) in exchange for the kidney. The surgery goes well and Li can't do enough for the older man. He calls Yang brother and invites his family to eat with Li and his sister in a lavish dining room with golden chairs. Li promises to find Yang and his family a far better place to live. Xiaohui drops hints that they might be able to help Bao get into his top choice of college even though his test scores are a few points too low.

Just when it seems that both families have everything they ever wanted, complications set in and Li asks for help from his 'brother' once more. This time it's something Yang is unwilling to do, however, and Li isn't used to hearing the word no. He has money, power, and the aforementioned ruthless friends on his side. Yang has only a desperate desire to keep his family safe. It seems obvious who will get his way... but Yang still has a few surprises in store.

You're probably thinking this is an action-thriller, with guns, gruesome threats, maybe even a wild chase at the end. That's what I was expecting, anyway. But it's actually a quiet, slow, beautiful drama without a weapon in sight, where the threats are heavily veiled and even the bad guy isn't all that bad. Hardly anyone even so much as raises their voice. The conversational pauses (mainly Yang's) would make M. Night Shyamalan wonder if they were perhaps a bit too long.

But the way the divide between rich and poor is portrayed is fascinating. There's a tunnel that leads to Yang's neighborhood, a portal between Li's shining heaven and Yang's cramped, oppressive hell, and it's at borders like this that several of the pivotal scenes happen. Each man is a perfect representative of their worlds as well -- Li is elegantly dressed, secure in his own importance, while Yang is tired and worn, struggling through each day. The collision between them leads to an ending that's as inevitable as it is shocking, and the final scene couldn't be more haunting.

Image: 
Yang on his knees, begging Li to spare him a terrible decision. It doesn't work.

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