More Personal Than An Arm And A Leg: A List on Organ Theft in Film

More Personal Than An Arm And A Leg: A List on Organ Theft in Film

Organs. Everyone has them. Everyone needs them. Some people need new ones. Sometimes that need is so strong, people resort to illegal means to procuring a new kidney, or lung, or liver. The black market for organ trade is very real, to the point that in the United States, there’s a hefty fine and jail time if you’re caught exchanging a donation for literally any reason other than altruism.

I know this because I myself am going through the process of becoming a kidney donor for a relative. It’s a pain in the ass for everyone involved. This list is partly to work through the anxiety the process has caused, if I’m being completely honest.

So, it makes sense, then, that some movies would use the black market that’s arisen to make this process criminally easy for the recipient, to mine for its villains and antagonists. It’s a gross business, dealing in human bodies, no matter if they consent to it or not (most of the people on this list don’t, for what that’s worth, or don’t entirely consent to what goes on).

And don’t look for Jeepers Creepers on this list, because fuck Victor Salva.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

This tale of Ryu, a Korean factory worker, begins in the direst of straits: his sister needs a kidney transplant, and he isn’t a match. His severance pay from the factory would have covered a surgery after a donor is found, but Ryu was already swindled out of the sum by organ dealers who renege on a deal to trade his kidney for a matching one in exchange for the money. Pain and violence beget pain and violence repeatedly in Chan-wook Park’s opener to what’s called his “Vengeance Trilogy.” Mr. Vengeance is the shaggiest of the three tales, plot-wise, but the very gritty, realistic escalation of the revenge plots and violence all start with one well-meaning brother, waking up in a tub full of ice, sans one kidney. Just like the classic urban myth.

Pound of Flesh

Speaking of urban myths, this Jean-Claude Van Damme DTV actioner opens right after the credits with JCVD himself waking up in a tub of melting ice, without the kidney meant for his character’s ailing niece. This time, though, the film is set in the Philippines, where to the plot’s credit, the organ trade is actually running strong on the fringes of society in the real world.

Upon realizing that his niece didn’t get the kidney he no longer has, Van Damme goes on a predictable warpath, striking back at the thieves and saving the day for his family. Obviously, as this is a JCVD flick, this involves a lot of kicking people in the face, a real feat for someone who’s just had a major organ removed. Van Damme puts in solid work here, even if the movie itself isn’t as strong as his performance—look for some bad green screen pick-up shots in the nightclub fight.

Dirty Pretty Things

Stephen Frears’ acclaimed film about immigrants in the UK living in the fringes deals very directly with the concept of the black-market organ trade—Sergi Lopez’s Juan runs a hotel kept up by asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, profiting both off of their work and quite literally their bodies. You see, Juan offers to procure falsified documents for those refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers who come through his hotel, in exchange for kidneys (again with the kidneys! Not helping, filmmakers of the world!).

When Juan finds out that Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a night desk attendant at his hotel, used to be a surgeon in his home country before the UK, he pressures Okwe to perform the surgeries for his organ dealing. Okwe eventually agrees in order to help a hotel maid he’s become close to attain papers that would permit her passage to the United States.

The audience really feels just how extensively immigrants, and illegal immigrants in particular, are subject to being exploited by a system and members of society who don’t see them as anything more than numbers on a sheet. This, incidentally, is probably the most critically-loved entry on the list, just going by the talent involved.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Don’t argue with me that it’s not theft just because Anthony Stewart Head’s Repo Man is collecting on what are essentially derelict mortgages on things like spines, intestines, lungs and livers. The debtors/patients are very much dead by the time the Repo Man’s finished his grisly, grand guignol-style work.

The music is catchy, if a little simplistic for a musical (it’s literally an opera, as everyone is prone to bouts of held notes and overtures), and, you’ll probably be very surprised but…Paris Hilton is in this, and not only is she in on the joke of her own casting, but is actually kind of good here. One of the high points, in fact, is a song directly involving her character, called “Zydrate Anatomy”.

As all the best operas are wont to do, none of what’s onscreen ends well for damn near anyone, of course. It’s got a very goth vibe, a sense of fun and a theatricality that doesn’t leave it feeling as small as some other stage-to-screen adaptations have come off as. And the gore is wonderful. Which makes sense, as it’s from one of the minds behind (some of) the Saw franchise’s entries, Darren Lynn Bousman.


The odd well-intentioned villain is found here in this thriller from 2006, where a cadre of organ-thieving Brazilian locals scrounge “resources” for transplants to the poor in Rio de Janeiro. This is done as a kind of karmic payback for centuries of outsiders razing the country of its people and environmental resources (real resources, not like, Brazilian organs). The cast is full of pretty people who can act scared very well, including Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde. Overall, though, the film isn’t that great. But if you’re looking for a Hostel look-alike, and just want to see attractive college-aged people having their naivete robbed of them at knife-point, you could do far worse than Turistas. At least this movie tries to say something besides, “Americans should watch their backs outside their home country.” It just doesn’t say it very well. The gore isn't terrible, either.

I won’t get all “very special episode” on you here. But, part of the reason I’m becoming a donor is because the wait list for a kidney is on average, over two years long. Not many people can wait that long for a kidney, and the wait list for a lung or liver can be just as long, if not longer. This wait is so long  because living donor rates have dropped sharply in the last ten to fifteen years. I’ve been registered through the Department of Motor Vehicles in my state—it’s just a check box when I renew my license. Please consider being a donor, and register here:

You’ll get to tell people you saved someone’s life, and that’s pretty badass, no matter how you slice it.

2016 Screen Actors Guild Award Winners

2016 Screen Actors Guild Award Winners

What Film Should Win Best Picture This Year?

What Film Should Win Best Picture This Year?