‘Dying To Survive’: China’s Black Comedy & Social Drama Thrives At Local Box Office

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Dying To Survive, a Chinese black comedy with social drama overtones that we’ve been talking about for the past few weeks as a potential breakout during the July blackout on Hollywood movies, is showing serious signs of life in the Middle Kingdom. What’s more, it’s not the sort of film we’ve seen before during this period, and has spurred debate on serious issues.

Four days of previews began last weekend with the official July 6 release date backed up to July 5 as buzz swelled. With today’s locally-reported one-day estimate of about $57M, Dying To Survive has grossed an estimated $141M through Saturday (it’s also on about 500 IMAX screens). The film, directed by feature first-timer Muye Wen, has a 9 score on Douban and 9.7 on Maoyan. The Douban number has only been attained by such movies as Coco, Zootopia and Ready Player One in recent years.

Local analysts see an RMB 3B ($452M) over the run, and some are going higher. But it’s not only about the turnstile action on the film that’s been compared to Dallas Buyers Club — there are social implications here too.

Major Chinese hits have recently and typically run from fantasy/comedy to the patriotic: Think the Monster Hunt movies, The MermaidWolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea.

While Dying To Survive has comedic elements, it’s also a social drama that has found comparisons to imported hits from India. Those include Aamir Khan’s Dangal and Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, both of which did great business in the PROC.

Dying To Survive has also spurred renewed debate over the cost of much-needed drugs, and their less expensive imports… from India.

The film stars Zheng Xu (How Long Will I Love ULost In Thailand) as Yong Cheng, a shopkeeper of an Indian Miracle Oil Store. (Indian Miracle Oil is said to be an ointment that used to be popular among Chinese men as a purported cure for sexual dysfunction.) One day, an uninvited guest makes Yong, who is facing mounting debt, the exclusive agent of an Indian generic drug. With large profits, his life changes dramatically and he is labeled as ‘Medicine God’ by his patients. But he also attracts the attention of the police, who accuse him of breaking the law, and a battle of salvation begins.

It’s loosely based on the true story of Chinese merchant and leukemia patient Lu Yong who rose to a sort of hero status after importing and selling less expensive generic anticancer drugs from India to Chinese mainland patients suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). They couldn’t afford the cost of a licensed drug, for which Lu himself had reportedly been paying $3,500 a month. When he discovered Veenat, a generic made in India, it cost an average $600 a month, dropping to $30 years later, the Global Times has reported. Lu helped fellow Chinese sufferers access Veenat which was considered counterfeit. He was charged with promoting counterfeit drugs in 2014 and was arrested in 2015 for failing to appear in court. Per the Global Times, more than 1,000 patients to whom he sold drugs petitioned the court for his release and prosecutors dropped the charges.

The protagonist in the film is not a leukemia patient, rather an adult store owner who starts importing medicine for financial gain before having a change of heart. At the film’s premiere last week, director Wen said it “showcases the profound evolution of an ordinary person.”

While the original drug, Gilvec, was ultimately included into a number of health insurance plans in China and there is now a zero-tax policy for imported anticancer drugs, Dying To Survive has people talking.

In a Caixin Global opinion piece this week titled ‘China Must Wake Up to Injustice of High Drug Prices,’ Dr Chen Zuobing, who is VP of Zhejiang University Hospital and director of Kangfu Medical Center at Peking University Third Hospital, said it is time to rethink certain rules surrounding pharmaceutical drugs. “If someone commits a crime in order to profit from it, they are simply a criminal. But if someone has to commit a crime in order to survive, society must take a look at itself and ask who the guilty ones really are.”

China last year entered Wolf Warrior 2 ($854M local gross) as its Foreign Language Oscar contender, and while Dying To Survive likely won’t hit its box office heights, it’s not unthinkable this is the one they put forth this year.

The film is produced by Dirty Monkeys Studios, Beijing Joy Leader Culture Communication, Huanxi Media Group Limited, Beijing Jingxi Culture &Tourism, Beijing Universe Cultural Development, Beijing Talent International Film Company Limited, and distributed by Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co.

by Nancy Tartaglione
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