Director: Li Ruijun
Stars: Wu Renlin, Hai Qing, Yang Guangrui
The gentle rhythms of Li Ruijun’s Return to Dust barely hint at it’s status as a controversial picture. For long stretches one would be forgiven for thinking it the most sweetly sedate film to have appeared this side of The Straight Story. But gentleness can bely many things. There’s sometimes great power in it (see Abderrahmane Sissako’s wondrous Timbuktu for example). Just because the grass is still doesn’t mean there isn’t a storm coming.
Indeed, this depiction of agrarian (dis)harmony has been viewed in its native China as a direct criticism of the state for how it portrays abject poverty. It’s focal characters certainly are bitterly poor, and Ruijun implements some not-so-subtle metaphors for how the system (literally) bleeds them dry, but Ruijun’s methodology and wider political stance is a shade murkier than it initially appears.
Infirm and incontinent, meek middle-aged Cao Guiying (Hai Qing) is thrown into an arranged marriage with ‘fourth brother’ Iron Ma (Wu Renlin); something both parties appear wearily resigned to in the early stages of their acquaintance. Paired off, they’re more or less abandoned to fend for themselves. Iron – a seasoned farmer – doggedly works the land with his wife’s haphazard assistance and, over the course of an arid summer, we watch them slowly render a home for themselves out of the earth itself. The formation of bricks, the construction of scaffolding… all while starting up a modestly scaled farm. Here, piecemeal, Ruijun uses small gestures to convey their blooming dependence on one another. Both are prideful people, and fiercely loyal.
For all the gritty hardships experienced by Iron and Guiying, the mid-section of the film casts their combined struggle as a slow-burn idyll; a communion with the earth and an almost wordless bonding of souls captured in the most exquisite natural lighting. In a sense, Return to Dust plays as one of the most romantic pictures of the year. Framing throughout is elegant without being too precious, while subtly inquisitive close-ups continue this feeling of impeccably captured activity.
As much as the middle of the film has the fullest heart, one senses its own falseness and impermanence. We begrudge the fall to come, no matter how clearly we see it coming. This, then, creates a conflict with how bourgeoise poverty is made to feel in those pristine magic hours of toil and hardship. Return to Dust is almost too beautiful in its rendering. And its heroes’ enjoyment of their troubles creates a new tension. Both honest in the moment and inevitably loaded, viewed from a vantage of greater privilege.
And indeed there’s another sense of internal conflict here in the presentation of arranged marriage, which westerners are quick to interpret as routinely bad and unfair. Return to Dust acknowledges the awkward, unfamiliar beginnings of the relationship between Iron and Guiying (that horrendous wedding photo), but quickly counters with one of the sweetest on-screen relationships in memory (if one forgives a singular act of frustrated cruelty from Iron). Combined with the depiction of peasant life as a self-manifested joy, this bubble of warmth is one that Ruijun is then compelled to burst in order for his necessary political allegory to land.
The final third brings about a quick dose of reality. And while points are made (points still clear enough to court the aforementioned controversy), the move feels jarring, even though we sensed it coming all along. Return to Dust spoils us so in the mid-section – indulging a fantasy of perfect peasantry that absolves our consciences – that the fast cruelties of an uncaring world are like a bucket of cold water over our defenseless bodies. But it is also a measure of how far we’ve come with the characters. Our attachment.
On many levels this is pristine filmmaking. Beautifully shot, exquisitely performed by the two leads who carry the entire thing (along with another of cinema’s great donkeys). But is it all too gilded? Here we find a complex – and compromised – meshing of methodology and intent; something which can be picked over for far longer than the film’s languid (but never long) 133 minutes.
The ending of this international release seems to retain the censorious cuts that reframe the finale, softening the extent of its tragedy. Another wrinkle in the life of a movie that seems to be ongoing.