Return to Dust (2022)

An unwanted man and woman brought together in an arranged marriage must support each other as they toil as farmers in rural China in this beautifully-shot drama bogged down somewhat by its simplistic, drawn-out storytelling.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,529

Dir. Li Ruijun
2022 | China | Drama | 131 mins | 1.55:1 | Mandarin
Not rated – likely to be PG13

Cast: Wu Renlin, Hai-Qing
Plot: The humble, unassuming Ma and timid Cao have been cast off by their families and forced into an arranged marriage. To survive, they have to come together and build a home for themselves.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlinale)
International Sales: m-appeal

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Rural China; Poverty; Class Exploitation
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Screener
Spoilers: No

A sleeper hit when it played in Chinese cinemas, Return to Dust was then inexplicably pulled off the screens by the Chinese government.  When asked if the film was available to premiere in Singapore, the answer I got was that the producers would not allow it at this time.  So, it remains a mystery whether the film will see the light of day again. 

It is hard to imagine Return to Dust would have caused any problem—there’s nothing outrightly political in its content, though it explores the idea of farmers in China being relocated to high-rise apartments in developing cities.  Having said that, this isn’t even the main focus of Li Ruijun’s new work. 

Instead, the Walking Past the Future (2017) director centers the narrative on an unwanted man and woman brought together in an arranged marriage.  Throughout the film, they support each other as they toil in the fields and build their own mud house. 

“Everything starts from the soil.”

It is a beautifully-shot work, though some have lamented its ‘poverty porn’ underpinnings, an aestheticization of hardship if I may say so.  I could get past that though, but not quite its simplistic, drawn-out storytelling style, which bogs down the film somewhat. 

Accompanied by ambient music that doesn’t always fit its setting, Return to Dust is the kind of film that Zhang Yimou used to excel in during the 1990s, eliciting emotions through strong performances and elegant narratives. 

In Li’s film, the performances by the lead duo are indeed excellent, though not necessarily powerful.  Nonetheless, they help to pull the picture through its more ordinary segments. 

Grade: B-


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