‘Dying to Survive,’ a comedy about illegally importing drugs, might be China’s best movie of the year

Society & Culture

The movie poised to be one of China's biggest summer hits.

Animal Thriller (动物世界 dòngwù shìjiè), a Chinese thriller toplined by Michael Douglas and “fresh little meat” actor Li Yifeng 李易峰, may have been the box office champion last weekend, but Dying to Survive (我不是药神 wǒ bùshì yào shén) is the movie that seems poised to become one of China’s biggest hits this summer. The comedy opened at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival to rave reviews and boasted a higher seating rate in theaters than its fellow competitors despite limited openings. On the ticketing platform Maoyan, the movie currently has a 9.7 rating, which ties it with Wolf Warriors 2 (战狼 zhàn láng) as one of the highest-rated domestic films.

Dying to Survive tells the tale of a health supplements peddler, played by comedic actor Xu Zheng 徐峥, who smuggles unapproved drugs from India to sell to leukemia patients for more affordable prices. While Xu’s character initially goes into the trade purely for its lucrativeness, his motives begin to change and become more altruistic as he realizes the significance of his work and the lives he could save. The movie was inspired by a real-life incident in China: in 2015, a man called Lu Yong 陆勇 was charged for importing and selling a cheaper, “knockoff” version of Gleevec, a leukemia medication. Lu himself suffered from leukemia and began purchasing Gleevec tablets produced by an Indian pharmaceutical company for other patients who couldn’t afford the “real,” sanctioned drug. The indictment was later quashed after the patients that had benefited from Lu’s actions petitioned the court to lessen the sentence and release him.

While some people have remarked on the similarity of storylines between Dying to Survive and the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club, the movie’s social realist themes also recalls another surprise hit last summer: Dangal. The wrestling drama film, which dealt with issues of gender discrimination in sports, went on to become the highest-grossing Bollywood movie in China’s box office history. Critics have noted that the strong box office performances of movies like Dying to Survive and Dangal and the positive reception received by movies such as Angels Wear White (嘉年华 jiāniánhuá) and Twenty-Two (二十二 èr shí èr) signals a change in China’s movie market, where more domestic movies are embracing the challenge of tackling difficult social issues.

Film Friday is SupChina’s film recommendation column. Have a recommendation? Get in touch: editors@supchina.com