How Drug Smuggler Dramedy 'Dying to Survive' Became a China Box-Office Phenomenon
The film, which critics are calling China's 'Dallas Buyers Club,' earned nearly $50 million from pre-release previews and is being hailed as a creative breakthrough for the film industry in Beijing.
China's latest blockbuster, Dying to Survive, pulled off a rare feat of box-office magic this week: it managed to earn $50 million before it even opened.
A stirring social drama tinged with black comedy, Dying to Survive premiered to rave reviews at the Shanghai International Film Festival in late June. It then hit the road on a promotional tour — as most major Chinese films do these days — holding limited sneak-peek screenings in select cities across the country. With each stop, enthusiasm swelled, and the film soon became China's most widely discussed, critically acclaimed movie in years, scoring a 9.7/10 rating on ticketing service Maoyan — the same scored earned by mega-blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 ($870 million) in 2017.
The producers cleverly responded by escalating the scale of the previews, and the film began earning millions in prerelease revenue. They then moved its release date forward a full day to Thursday, citing "popular demand" — which only spurred more online excitement and discussion.
As of Thursday night, Dying to Survive had already earned $48.6 million — and it wasn't even supposed to have been released yet. Maoyan's box-office analysts expect the film to add as much as $100 million over the weekend, before ultimately earning upwards of $420 million.
So what's all the fuss about?
Produced by Chinese hitmaker Ning Hao, Dying to Survive tells the story of a shady health supplements supplier, played by comedy favorite Xu Zheng (Lost in Thailand), who smuggles unapproved drugs from India to sell to leukemia patients who can't afford the prohibitively expensive official medication offered by Chinese hospitals. Initially inspired by craven financial interest, the smuggler's motives evolve as he realizes how desperately his customers need help.
The film is based on the real-life story of Lu Yong, a textile trader who was diagnosed with leukemia and spent over $80,000 on official medication before turning to smuggling a vastly cheaper generic alternative from India. He went on to save more than 1,000 lives by bringing the drug into China for other patients, before he was arrested and charged in 2014 with selling fake drugs.
Hundreds of leukemia survivors Lu had helped then petitioned for his release, and he was ultimately freed without penalty by a judge who praised Lu for the way he had never personally profited from the drug sales. After news of Lu's saga spread, many in the local and international media began comparing him to the hero of Dallas Buyers Club, the 2013 Matthew McConaughey Oscar winner about a Texas man who sold unregulated AIDS drugs to help fellow HIV sufferers in the 1980s.
Critics have hailed Dying to Survive as a breakthrough for the Chinese film industry — a rare work of stirring social significance from a film scene typically blocked by censorship from addressing topics related to China's real-life problems. Several preview screenings have ended in standing ovations.
Dying to Survive is the feature debut of 33-year-old director Wen Muye. The film is produced by Beijing Culture, the same studio that was also behind Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior 2.