Film on cancer experience a hit in China

A woman walks past a poster of Dying to Survive, which is en route to becoming one of China's highest-grossing films.
A woman walks past a poster of Dying to Survive, which is en route to becoming one of China's highest-grossing films. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI • In 2002, Mr Lu Yong was told he could expect to live only three more years after he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukaemia.

But there was hope.

Glivec, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, could stabilise his condition until he was able to get a potentially life-saving bone-marrow transplant.

But Glivec cost 24,000 yuan a bottle in China then.

An Indian generic version cost only 2,000 yuan so he began ordering it from abroad, increasing the volume over the years as other patients sought his help.

But the Indian drug was barred under Chinese rules and he was arrested in 2013.

Now, a movie called Dying To Survive, based on his experiences, is on course to become one of China's highest-grossing films.

Released on July 5, it surpassed even the first-week, box-office take of Wolf Warrior 2, a commando adventure that last year capitalised on rising patriotism to become China's highest-grossing movie ever.

Starring popular comic actor and director Xu Zheng as a character modelled after Mr Lu, the film uses black comedy to leaven the heavy subject matter.


In a rare U-turn, prosecutors in central Hunan province dropped Mr Lu's case after thousands of Chinese leukaemia patients signed an open letter urging his release.

Mr Lu, who said he never sought to profit from the scheme, was never charged.

"I know the pressure of being tortured by disease, so I never thought to make one cent," he said in his personal blog.

China's censors rarely green-light mass releases of films focusing on touchy subjects. But the key villain in Dying To Survive is the pharmaceutical industry and the authorities apparently saw the value of a movie that portrays the government as responsive on the issue.

The country announced earlier this year that it would lift tariffs on many cancer treatments and the buzz around the film's release has coincided with yet more change.

Mr Lu said: "Since the movie's release, it's become a sensation. To be able to push healthcare reform is an excellent thing."

He now runs a factory in eastern China making gloves and is still awaiting his transplant.

As of last Friday, the film had earned 2.04 billion yuan (S$417 million).

Wolf Warrior 2 netted 5.67 billion yuan in its 12-week cinema run.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2018, with the headline 'Film on cancer experience a hit in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe