The Movie Waffler New to BFI/Curzon - RETURN TO DUST | The Movie Waffler

New to BFI/Curzon - RETURN TO DUST

New to BFI/Curzon - RETURN TO DUST
Two middle-aged outsiders enter into an arranged marriage.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Li Ruijun

Starring: Wu Renlin, Hai Quing

return to dust poster

Aka the film the CCP doesn’t want you to see... Following a glowing reception at Berlin and Edinburgh, and an impressive box office return of 100 million yuan on a budget of 2 million, Li Ruijun’s beautiful drama Return to Dust has recently been withdrawn from streaming platforms in China, and any mention of the film on the domestic social media site Weibo has been similarly circumscribed. Censorship is always a disappointment, but at the same time the internal embargo of Return to Dust is a thrilling reminder of the power of the movies, that films can and do matter. And Return to Dust, a gorgeous saga of simple people whose humble lives are elevated to the highest of dramas, is arguably the most powerful movie of this quarter.

return to dust review

Over Return to Dust's epic two hours, we follow the lives of Ma Youtie (Wu Renlin) and Cao Guiying (Hai Qing) in rural Gansu during the early 2010s. Youtie and Guiyang are past the standard age for marriage, with Guiyang disabled and infertile to boot (Hai Qing, objectively one of the most beautiful people on the planet, is unrecognisable in her solemn portrayal). Nonetheless, their families arrange a union for these ingenuous, lost souls, and over time they fall in love as they, along with their donkey, eke out a simple existence as farmers. Conflict duly occurs when the properties which Youtie and Guiyang set up home in are repeatedly demolished. This is due to a government initiative where rural homes are destroyed in return for cash incentives for land owners (the controversial details can be read here). Eventually, Youtie and Guiyang build their own home using bricks made from mud and with wood salvaged from prior demolitions.

return to dust review

Ruijun’s film balances an emotional immersion in Youtie and Guiyang’s world with an occasional, deft objectivity. We are encouraged to feel for the pair, but also recognise them as referrals to a wider, real-life context. Wang Weihua’s photography acutely uses framing devices to remind us that we are spectators, while Renlin and Qing’s performances engage with poignant humanity. An example is when Youtie sits alone on a bed, facing a mirror, overhearing his family discuss his general uselessness while arranging a marriage to an incontinent woman: we watch him look at himself, and receive dialogue second hand (we are not so much hearing the dialogue directly, but seeing Youtie listen to it). The once-removal encourages detachment, a consideration of a plight which the film posits as typical for Chinese citizens of this age. And yet Return to Dust’s verisimilitude is stunning, none more so than when, in an extended montage, we see Youtie and Guiyang’s house being hand built (adding to the authenticity is the revelation that Renlin is not a trained actor, and is, irl, a farmer). Shot across a year, the seasons are vividly expressive of time passing, the film’s major theme: Youtie likens the couple and their struggle to the wheat which they farm, "when summer comes, it will be cut down anyway."  The portrayal of relationship is devastatingly resonant too, with Renlin and Quing essaying the sort of calm and uncomplicated companionship that should be everyone’s ideal.

return to dust review

The ending is a bit odd, though. Shades of when Poochie leaves The Itchy and Scratchy show if you know what I mean... (Wikipedia has the details). Speculation as to the reasoning behind Return to Dust’s domestic ban, and manhandled ending, generally agree that the film’s portrayal of the Chinese poor runs counter to what the CCP wants the populace to believe regarding the political agenda of poverty alleviation. Allow my waffle: that the Chinese powers that be were so shook by Return to Dust’s quiet power that they not only erased it from domestic existence and curtailed positive mention of it, is really this film’s greatest testament.

Return to Dust is on BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema now.

2022 movie reviews