Why social drama 'Dying to Survive' became a China blockbuster

July 10, 2018 07:58
A scene from 'Dying to Survive', a social drama that has emerged as the latest box-office sensation in China. Photo: Baidu

"Dying to Survive" is China's latest blockbuster movie, based on the real-life story of a cancer patient.

The film is more of a black social drama, which takes aim at the social reality and government policy.

The movie was directed by the 33-year-old up-and-coming Wen Muye, and Alibaba Pictures is among the investors. It grossed over one billion yuan since the official release on July 6.

In the story, Cheng Yong, played by comedy star Xu Zheng, is the owner of an Indian Miracle Oil Store. He accidentally found that counterfeit leukemia drug Gleevec was only sold at 500 yuan per box in India, compared to over 40,000 yuan in China.

Lured by the greasy profit, Cheng smuggled the unlicensed drug to China and sold to Chinese patients at 2,000 yuan. He was regarded as a hero by many cancer patients who can't afford the original version of the expensive licensed drug.

Cheng became rich and then decided to stop the drug smuggling business. He opened a garment factory.

However, a large number of patients became desperate as they were forced to sell their houses or everything they have to pay for authentic Gleevec.

That prompted Cheng to change his heart, and renew his smuggling business. This time he even sold the drug only at just 500 yuan to save lives.

Unfortunately, he was arrested and sentenced to jail for five years in the end. A large crowd of patients lined up on the street to show their respect for him as he was being taken away.

Gleevec was developed by Novartis, one of the world’s top three pharmaceutical firms. It is considered as one of the best targeted therapy drugs for curing cancer. However, patients need to pay up to US$100,000 for the drug a year without government or insurance subsidy.

In fact, the film was based on the real-life story of Lu Yong, a Chinese textile trader and leukemia patient. He imported less expensive counterfeit drug from India and sold to his fellow Chinese patients. Lu helped thousands of Chinese patients but was arrested and jailed in 2014.

Many would wonder why Chinese authorities would give green light to such a politically sensitive film.

But in fact, the film seems to be more like praising Xi Jipping's administration.

Following a medical reform in May, most cancer drugs are now tariff free. More importantly, some of them, including Gleevec, are covered by health insurance schemes that pay up to 80 percent of the costs as subsidy.

China's drug imports soared 16.3 percent to US$55.9 billion last year, just behind semiconductor chips and oil. And the imports are set to accelerate after the government scrapped tariff and put anti-cancer drugs into healthcare insurance. That would help further reduce the trade surplus with US.

The full article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 9

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist