One of the best films China has produced in recent memory is finally coming to US theaters. Chinese writer/director Li Ruijun’s lyrical realism drama Return to Dustwhich premiered to critical acclaim at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival, will launch in select cities from July 21, courtesy of Film Movement.
A moving portrait of China’s vanishing rural way of life, Return to Dustis, like much of Li’s work, a triumph of independent filmmaking. The film was shot on a meager budget in Gaotai, one of the poorest and most remote parts of China, where the director grew up. Many of those involved in the production were his relatives and other villagers – male lead Wu Renlin is his uncle, a lifelong farmer – lending this social realist elegy a depth of authenticity that would be impossible to fake.
The film is about two middle-aged peasants, Ma (Wu) and Guiying (veteran actress Hai Qing), long ignored and exploited, who are brought together by their families in an arranged marriage to destroy them. With no choice but to try and build a life together, the clumsy couple retreat to the deserted outskirts of town and begin cultivating a small piece of land together. As Ma shares his deep knowledge of farming and the cycles of the seasons, a soulful side to each silent character is revealed and an unexpected bond begins to form between them – a timeless romance based on simple kindness and caring. Ultimately, China’s inexorable urban development threatens to engulf the delicate idyll they have built together – shedding some of the loss and sadness that also accompanies the modern surge of “progress”.
Art house cinema rarely makes it to the commercial box office in China, but Return to Dust became a phenomenon after its release on July 8 last year. Produced at a mere $275,000, the film started out small, but went on to become a smash hit, surging ticket sales to approximately $14 million thanks solely to viral word of mouth among local movie lovers. However, on Sept. 26, whose ticket sales were still rising, Return to Dust was removed from all Chinese cinemas and discussion of it was briefly blocked on local social media. As is usual with censorship decisions in China, no official statement was ever made. But the film had become the target of nationalist media and online trolls, who accused it of portraying China as “backward” and trying to humiliate the country on the global stage. Most industry observers believed that the film was censored out of sympathy for such interpretations.
China was then in the run-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress, scheduled for October 2022, which would see Xi Jinping earn a landmark third term as the country’s head of state. The propaganda messages of the time were all about China’s inexorable rise as a global superpower and the successful eradication of rural poverty – certainly not the loss of sensitive traditions and the environmental destruction that accompanied this progress. True social realism was not welcome in Xi’s China 2022.
In an enthusiastic review from Berlin last year said The Hollywood Reportr’s critic described Return to Dust as “an elegiac tale, a humanistic metaphor for a vanishing world seen through the prism of a vulnerable couple cruelly written off.”
He later adds, “While the film could be read as an implicit critique of China for weeding out the weak in its drive to modernize, the consideration of kindness is even more striking … with the same clear, unsentimental observation he made of the couple at the Day lays.” Good luck, Li witnesses the return of heartache to her life in a final act all the more poignant for being held back.”