Dust to Dust

International Festival Premiere | In Competition

Guest star:
Jonathan LI, director

Hong Kong’s Jonathan Li shook up mainland Chinese crime cinema last September when his brooding thriller Dust to Dust hit screens. Featuring a nonlinear plot, a slow-burn cat-and-mouse game spanning decades and an exploration of cruel fate, Li’s film found its niche with audiences and spent close to three weeks as the mainland’s number one film.

The plot, based on an actual crime from the 1990s, sees retiring cop Wang Shouyue (Lam Ka-tung) returning to a cold case through a chance encounter. As he’s resting up at home in Qingyuan, Guangdong Province, Wang watches a news report on his phone. Passing through the background of footage from the Ruilong building materials market is a familiar-looking man, and the blurry glimpse is enough to make Wang board a train and try to track the guy down.

Dust to Dust then jumps back 21 years to 1995 when, also in Qingyuan, the country’s largest bank robbery is about to take place. Five armed robbers raid a bank’s cash van, killing bank escorts and making off with RMB15 million. Cops get straight on the case – the provincial security bureau joins forces with officers in three cities – and the thieves are rounded up. But the two masterminds, dodgy construction firm boss Chen Xinwen (Da Peng) and his vice president cousin Chen Xin’nian (Sunny Sun), get tipped off and make a clean escape. The pair head abroad and toil in a jade quarry for a few years, but they itch to return to China. For that to happen, they’ll need a way to get back there incognito and stay out of police reach.

Embarking on a crime film in mainland China is no simple task – censorship constraints famously require punishment for wrongdoers, and that’s in addition to more general restrictions. The risk for a genre film is it becoming formulaic, unless the filmmakers devise smart approaches to keep their work fresh and powerful. Li and writer Chou Man-yu’s solution is to delve into the psyche of the two Chens as they head towards high crime and struggle with life in the aftermath. The actual heist scenes are gripping and well choreographed – the director has been there before with his intense action flick The Brink (2017) – but the focus turns to deep-set torment, mind games and sad twists of fate. Though mainland set, and impeccable in recreating the local ’90s atmosphere, the film brings in a certain Hong Kong cinema familiarity with all the main behind-the-scenes talents being Hongkongers and the lead actors often speaking Cantonese.

Hong Kong star Lam Ka-tung gives a steady performance as the principal cop chasing the Chens. The role is largely that of a steely officer, dead set on bringing his targets to justice and voicing the crime-doesn’t-pay lines. The standout is on the opposing side of the law, however. Actor and filmmaker Da Peng, who made his name in comedy, won Best Actor at the Shanghai International Film Festival on the film’s premiere, and it’s not hard to see why. His part sees him undergo physical transformation as he shifts from boisterous businessman to cloistered family man cut off from his roots, and it’s through him that much of the thematic material emerges. Li, for his part, picked up Best Director in the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards this January. Whereas The Brink had marked him out as a promising action stylist, Dust to Dust sees Li push ahead as a helmer of intense psychological drama too.<
Tim Youngs
Film director: Jonathan LI
Year: 2023
Running time: 112'
Country: Hong Kong
25/04 - 2:30 PM
Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine
25-04-2024 14:30 25-04-2024 16:22Europe/Rome Dust to Dust Far East Film Festival Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da UdineCEC Udine cec@cecudine.org