One of the finest films to emerge from China in recent memory is finally set to hit U.S. movie screens. Chinese writer-director Li Ruijun’s lyrical realist drama Return to Dust, which premiered to acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2022, will begin rolling out in select cities July 21 courtesy of Film Movement.
A moving portrait of China’s disappearing rural way of life, Return to Dust, like much of Li’s work, is a triumph of indie filmmaking. The movie was shot on a shoestring 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 village locals — the 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 follows two middle-aged peasants, Ma (Wu) and Guiying (veteran actress Hai Qing), long ignored and exploited, who are thrown together in an arranged marriage by their families as a means of doing away with them. With little choice but to try to scratch out a life together, the awkward couple retreats to the abandoned outskirts of town and begins working a small patch of land together. As Ma shares his deep knowledge of farming and the cycles of the seasons, a soulful side to each quiet character is revealed, and an unexpected bond begins to blossom between them — a timeless romance built on simple kindness and care. Ultimately, China’s relentless urban development threatens to engulf the delicate idyll they’ve built together — illuminating some of the loss and sorrow that also comes with the modern march of “progress.”
Art house cinema seldom breaks through at China’s commercial box office, but Return to Dust became a phenomenon after its release on July 8 last year. Made for just $275,000, the film opened small but became a sizable sleeper hit, climbing to about $14 million in ticket sales thanks entirely to viral word of mouth among local film lovers. However, on Sept. 26, with its ticket sales still climbing, Return to Dust was pulled from all Chinese cinemas, and discussion of it was briefly blocked on local social media. As is typical with censorship decisions in China, no official explanation was ever provided. But the film had become a target of nationalistic media outlets and online trolls who accused it of portraying China as “backward” and trying to humiliate the country on the global stage. Most industry watchers believed the film was censored in sympathy with such interpretations.
China was then in the lead-up to the 20th National Congress of China’s Communist Party, to be held in October 2022, when Xi Jinping would be given a groundbreaking third term as the country’s leader. Propaganda messaging around the moment was all about China’s relentless rise as a global superpower and the successful eradication of rural poverty — definitely not the loss of delicate tradition and the environmental degradation that had come with such advancement. Real social realism was not welcome in Xi’s China of 2022.
In a rave review out of Berlin last year, The Hollywood Reporter’s critic described Return to Dust as “an elegiac story, 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 discarding the weak in its rush to modernize, what’s more striking is its contemplation of kindness…with the same clear-eyed, unsentimental observation he brings to the couple’s good fortune, Li bears witness to the return of sorrow to their lives in a final act that’s all the more affecting for its restraint.”
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