Dying to Survive: Realism or Sensationalism

14 Aug 2018

Hemant Adlakha

Venue: Seminar Room, ICS
Time: 3:00 PM


Dying to Survive, a recent low-budget Chinese movie about a cancer patient who turns to smuggle cheaper cancer drugs from India. The movie is inspired by the true story of the Chinese businessman, Lu Yong, who was arrested in 2013 for importing a generic cancer drug but the case against him was dismissed after a public debate of the issue.

The movie has struck a chord in China with laobaixing (common people), Internet users and even with the top leadership “highlighting national anxieties about unaffordable hospital care.” The instant popularity of the film has been attributed to it successfully tackling a burning social issue head-on, a rarity in strictly censored China. Common people have been sending small ‘red envelops’ with the film tickets inside – a typical Chinese style of sharing the Chinese New Year gift – to relatives and friends, inviting them to watch the film. Dying to Survive was declared an outright box-office hit, raking in 2.45 billion RMB within just two weeks of its release.

Film critics in China have hailed and credited the film for sparking a nation-wide heated debate about the out-of-reach cost of medical care, with tens of millions of people struggling for access to drugs to treat the serious diseases. The movie has made many in China wonder why a film like Dying to Survive is attracting so much attention and resonates with Chinese audiences? Many more have been looking for answers to why Chinese authorities would permit a politically sensitive film to be screened. As Xinhua reported last week, the social realism activist film Dying to Survive is proving to be a stock market hit too. The Beijing Culture, one of the producers of the film saw the company’s share price rise for three consecutive days during the film’s opening week.

Cancer is the number one killer in China. With four million people diagnosed with cancer and nearly three million cancer patients succumbing to the killer disease every year in China, the film was bound to be a hit. A realist social criticism, Dying to Survive, stands out from the crowd as what its young 33-year-old director, Wen Muye, calls it to be “China’s first social hero film”. Not to forget, the villain in the film is the pharmaceutical industry. Politically speaking, contrary to what experts would want us to believe, the film seems to be praising the Xi Jinping ‘governance’ style. Early this year, following the Chinese government’s new medical reform policies to reduce import tariffs on most cancer drugs, the prices have already been reduced drastically.

It is very likely that the CPC sensed the propaganda value of a film that portrays the government as responsive on serious social issues. Or perhaps, the authorities giving green light to the dark comedy film, which is being described as China’s version of Dallas Buyers Club (2013), and the phenomenal box-office success of the film since its release, is a sign of a new brand of social realism combined with stock market success emerging in the Peoples’ Republic. The Chinese might even call it “social realism with Chinese characteristics”.   

About the Speaker

Hemant Adlakha, PhD, is professor of Chinese and the Ex-Chairperson, the Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies (CCSEAS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also an Honorary Fellow, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) Delhi. His areas of research include Political discourse in the P R China, Chinese literature, culture and cinema. He has published articles in Chinese and in English. He is a member, International Editorial Committee, International Society for Lu Xun Studies, Seoul (ROK). His most recent publications include, ‘Confucius’ in Encyclopedia of Rrace and Racism, 2nd Edition, Gale Cengage Learning, Macmillan Reference, USA. He has been invited to give lectures in International Politics at the Summer School, University of International Relations, Beijing, for several years. He regularly contributes articles to journals and news magazines such as China Report, The Diplomat etc. He has watched the film, Dying to Survive on 13 July 2018 in Beijing.



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