Wellostracized from work, banned from schools, rejected romantically—for years, hepatitis B carriers in China have faced a range of humiliations, big and small. In 1992, it was estimated that about 10% of the population tested positive for hepatitis B antigen. Yet for the next decade, they were systematically banned from all walks of life. This fuels an entire industry of fake medical reports, where Han Dong, the star of the film, is The best is yet to comebegins his investigation.
The story is somewhat based on the real life of Han Fudong, a journalist who later became the chief reporter of South Metropolis Daily, a newspaper once known for its hard-hitting investigations. Khan’s work eventually led to companies being banned from testing employees for the virus or firing carriers. At the time, there were more than 120 million people living with the disease in China.
The best is yet to comewhich is compared to All the President’s people and Spotlight, toured the international film circuit in 2020. But it was released in China last month, grossing 52.3m yuan (£6.1m) in its first week at the box office. That makes it a modest commercial success – but more impressive is the fact that a film about the power of investigative journalism could be released in China at all.
The film is set in the heady days of 2003. China had declared victory over SARS and the country, especially Beijing, was seething with ambition as people rode the wave of reform and opening that turbocharged the economy. It was also the year that Wang Jing, the film’s director, moved to the capital to study at the Beijing Film Academy, the country’s top film school. It was, says Wang Observerthe “spring” of Chinese civil society.
Modern China has never had a free press. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, journalists were given a much longer leash to report on society than they are today. In 2003 South Metropolis Daily published an exposé on the police beating to death of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker in Guangzhou. While that reporting led to the arrest of four journalists and two lengthy prison sentences, it also led to the repeal of the law that allowed police to detain Sun in the first place.
Not only would such reporting be impossible in China today, the lawyer who represented the journalists in the Sun case, Xu Zhiyong, is now in prison himself.
Wang’s film is full of nostalgia for that more optimistic time. “This era was full of opportunities for individuals and personal growth. Journalism was full of opportunities for change,” he says. “Not many people believe in idealism anymore.” Still, Wang is full of praise for the few independent journalists who persist in “keeping their eyes on things. How much can they change? I’m not sure. But it makes sense to keep doing it.”
It’s also dangerous. According to Reporters Without Borders, there are more than 100 journalists in prison in China today. In December 2020, independent journalist Zhang Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison for her reporting on the start of the Covid pandemic in Wuhan. In February this year, popular blogger Ruan Xiaohuan, known by the pseudonym Program Think, was sentenced to 12 years behind bars for “inciting subversion against state power.” Ruan’s blog gave tips on bypassing the Great Firewall and discussed official corruption.
Like his mentor, renowned film director Jia Zhangke, who has a cameo in the film, Wang is interested in the experiences of people alienated from mainstream society, particularly the struggle of outsiders trying to stay afloat in the threatening, polluted and often corrupt cities of China. Both Wang and Jia are natives of Shaanxi, an industrial province in northern China, and the two are close associates.
It was Jia who suggested Wang make a film about journalism. “This topic is not so easy to discuss in China. It is difficult from a business point of view. But we believed in it,” says Wang.
Journalism is not the film’s only sensitive subject. Blood itself can be taboo in China. In the 1990s, about one million people in the impoverished northern province of Henan contracted HIV after selling their blood plasma at unsanitary government-run clinics. Officials covered up the problem, allowing the disease to spread further.
Today, people with HIV face similar types of stigmatization to those described in The best is yet to come. A survey in Guangzhou found that nearly 40% of health care providers refused to treat HIV-positive people.
Xie Peng (pseudonym) is one of a handful of people who successfully filed an HIV anti-discrimination lawsuit against their employer, winning back their job at a television network in 2018. After watching The best is yet to come he feels so moved that he writes to Song Yang, the actor who plays a hepatitis B sufferer in the film. “A few years ago I felt like I couldn’t be respected, even if I tried my best,” he wrote, but the film helped “break down prejudice and discrimination.” He was thrilled when Song responded with encouraging words.
It is surprising that a film that describes so many sensitive subjects could be approved by the censors in China. But be careful to avoid criticizing the government directly. Wang agrees, but says it’s an artistic choice, insisting that “censorship is not part of our focus.”
In fact, he says he chose the topic precisely because it’s not about the government. “It wasn’t a story that evoked authority or any kind of power,” he says. “It was more complicated than that. It’s about people.
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin