Return to Dust
t.l. Ritorno alla polvere
隐入尘烟 (Yin Ru Chen Yan)
China, 2022, 133’, Mandarin
Directed by: Li Ruijun
Screenplay: Li Ruijun
Photography (color): Wang Weihua
Editing: Li Ruijun
Art Direction: Han Dahai, Li Ruijun
Costume Design and Make-up: Wu Jingyin
Music: Peyjan Yazdanian
Sound: Wang Changrui
Producers: Li Yan, Zhang Min
Co-producers: Sun Yabng, Feng Qiong, Wang Tianye, Zhao Yiyan
Executive Producer: Qin Hong
Production Companies: Hucheng no.7 Films Productions, Qizi Film Ltd., Beijing J.Q.Spring Pictures Co., Ltd., Aranya Pictures, Shanghai Shigu Film, Dream Media Co.,Ltd
Cast: Wu Renlin (Ma Youtie), Hai Qing (Cao Guiying)
Date of First Release in the Territory: TBA
An improbable and romantic love story is at the heart of Li Ruijun’s new film, shot in his native Gansu amidst majestic dunes, a symbol of rural China in the extreme, where material survival is precarious, but moments of poetry abound. The film, in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, is the sixth feature by this director who has a very deep relationship with his birthplace; he has shot almost all his films in the region, starring mainly friends and relatives.
The protagonists of the story are two middle-aged individuals: Cao Guiying is lame and suffers from chronic incontinence, Ma Youtie is a farmer who owns only one donkey. The two have become a burden on their respective families, who arrange a hasty marriage to be free of them. The initial estrangement between the couple – clearly shown in the scene in which they awkwardly have to take the photograph for the marriage certificate – quickly turns into affection and complete dedication to each other. The year is 2010, a time when emigration to big cities has completely deprived rustic houses of their value, and the authorities have begun to encourage their demolition, offering monetary rewards to their owners. The houses are knocked down one after the other, reducing them to piles of dust – hence the film’s title, which has a literal but also allegorical meaning. But Cao Guiying and Ma Youtie go against the tide: after years of loneliness and abandonment, the two have finally found a life partner in each other and want to build a future as a couple in a house. With patience and determination they begin to fix up one of the abandoned houses; but as soon as the work is completed, the owner arrives announcing that the house will be demolished. The two do not lose hope, and they move to another house which they fix up. But in a variation of the torment of Tantalus, history repeats itself and they are forced to move again. However, the two of them are characters with an ancient wisdom: they do not give up. They accept everything that life throws at them, with an improbable resignation, compensated by the sense of contentment and human warmth they find in each other.
The seasons change – the film was shot over the course of a year to capture the changes in the surrounding countryside – and the relationship between the two lovers grows like the grain they are painstakingly cultivating. Even when Ma is forced to donate his blood to save the life of a local gangster, thereby endangering his own, they don’t complain. Their lives are made up of small joys, delicate and precious moments that end up ennobling even the inhospitable environment they live in. Li Ruijun has given the film a strong stylistic imprint, including the set design – and the scene in which Ma Youtie creates light effects by placing a light bulb in a perforated cardboard box and enchanting Cao Guiying adds a touch of magic to the film. Ma Youtie and Cao Guiying are characters who would normally be sidekicks in a film, not leads. Li Ruijun has taken a gamble by presenting a love story that is utterly improbable, but perhaps all the more touching for that. The choice of actors is also interesting: an experienced actress like Hai Qing and a non-professional like Wu Renlin, the director’s uncle and a real-life farmer. Despite the enormous differences between the two, the alchemy works and is deeply moving. Although it is hard to accept that Ma Youtie and Cao Guiying never rebel against their fate, even when it is unjust, it is impossible to remain indifferent to the poetry that Return to Dust manages to create.
One of the leading figures in China’s new independent cinema, Li Ruijun (1983, Gansu) began studying music and visual arts at the age of fourteen. After graduating in 2003, he worked as a director for television. He debuted as a director of feature films in 2006. His films, often shot in his home village of Gaotai in Gansu and starring mainly his family and friends, focus on the relationship between the individual and the land, and the attitude of rural communities towards existential issues in a country undergoing sweeping changes.
2007 – The Summer Solstice
2010 – The Old Donkey
2012 – Fly with the Crane
2014 – River Road
2017 – Walking Past the Future
2022 – Return to Dust