In Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film that is based on a true story, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan electrician and rodeo rider, who finds out he only has 30 days to live. The year is 1985 and Woodroof is diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Woodroof decides to take treatment into his own hands, smuggling a variety of experimental medicines from outside the US. Before long, he is helping others by bringing pharmaceuticals from Mexico that were not legally available in the US at the time. To get around laws against selling unapproved drugs, he starts a club, giving contraband in exchange for a membership fee.
China, too, has its own Woodroof. In 2014, leukemia patient Lu Yong was found guilty of smuggling cheaper generic drugs from India for himself and other chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patients. Lu was believed to have saved more than 1,000 lives before he was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison for selling ‘fake’ drugs. The government eventually reversed course and released Lu after the families of CML patients he helped petitioned that he had never profited from his activities.
This week, a black comedy loosely based on his story has become the biggest blockbuster surprise of the year. Dying to Survive, which some are calling China’s Dallas Buyers Club, collected over Rmb2 billion ($299.75 million) at the box office in its opening week, with many analysts predicting that it could eventually surpass Rmb4 billion by the end of its run. Some even predicted it could challenge Wolf Warriors 2 (Rmb5.6 billion) as China’s top grossing movie ever.
Dying to Survive tells the story of Cheng Yong, played by star actor Xu Zheng, as the owner of an adult store that peddles a “magical Indian ointment” promising to help men last longer in bed. By chance, a customer asks for his help in procuring a generic drug from India to treat his leukemia.
Cheng jumps at the opportunity, charging a sizable premium on the unlicenced drug. Before long, his business grows, attracting many cancer patients, who call him the “Medicine God”. After some early profiteering he eventually has a change of heart, realising that he is saving the lives of so many people. However, his success also attracts the attention of the police, who accuse him of breaking the law. But as Cheng asks in the film: “What’s so illegal about wanting to stay alive?”
It is a sensitive topic but, similar to many other successful commercial movies, Dying to Survive has won favour with a key central government agency. The movie’s closing credits even commend the efforts of the Chinese government in reducing treatment costs for cancer patients.
Across social media the film has been a talking point: the number of cancer patients is on the rise – 4.3 million cases were diagnosed in 2015, twice the 2000 figure and more than any other country.
Despite recent medical reforms, many patients with critical illnesses are still priced out of life-saving drugs. Patients often have to take out loans to pay for such healthcare. Medical loans have become such a lucrative business that companies like Ping An Insurance, as well as small loan firms and P2P platforms, have piled into the market.
This has prompted the State Council to remove all tariffs on imported cancer drugs (since May) while actions have also been taken to boost the quality and efficacy of Chinese-made generic drugs.
Riding on the popularity of Dying to Survive, state media outlets are now trying to convey the message that the government has been moving in the right direction in tackling the problems that the movie has depicted.
“While it doesn’t take long to watch a movie, changing the reality will require everyone in the country an immeasurably long time to achieve,” People’s Daily admitted in an opinion piece. “Therefore, give the country some time. After all, we are a country with the largest population in the world. We also face endless demands for various types of medical drugs.”
Elsewhere the movie has been raking in rave reviews as well.
“[Expletive]! I must swear to express how strongly I feel. In the future, if there is a film this good, please call me if you need a cameo. You wouldn’t even have to pay me. Look at me, I have screamed and cried so many times throughout the film,” actor Huang Xiaoming exclaimed during a screening.
In addition to applauding its realistic depiction of cancer patients, the portrayal of doctors and pharmaceutical firms chasing glory and profits at the expense of patients has also generated a lot of discussion online.
Others have drawn comparisons with recent Bollywood blockbusters like Dangal – a comedy that also deals with social realist themes (gender discrimination in sports) – which did surprisingly well in China.
“Dying to Survive took four days to surpass the phenomenal box office record for Dangal. It goes to prove that reality-based films have a lot of potential in this country,” says Phoenix Entertainment, a portal.
Indeed, the movie has even helped foster Sino-Indian trade relations even as China’s tariff spat with the US escalates.
“A very popular film called Dying to Survive that is on show these days touches on the issue of anti-cancer drugs from India,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said during a regular press conference this week, announcing that Beijing and New Delhi have agreed to slash tariffs on the import of Indian medicines including anti-cancer drugs, which Xinhua said have a substantial demand in China due to cheaper pricing than their Western variants.
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