Return to Dust, Li Ruijun
Credit: TIFF
by Sam C. Mac Featured Film Horizon Line

Return to Dust — Li Ruijun

July 24, 2023

Like his (still-undistributed, in North America) previous film, 2017’s Walking Past the Future, Li Ruijun’s latest, Return to Dust (an official selection of this year’s Berlinale), straddles the line between a sensitive and more politically assertive view on the rural/urban divide in today’s Mainland China. However, whereas Walking Past the Future focused on a younger generation’s active pursuit of the opportunity and promise seemingly afforded by modernity — following a migrant worker’s experience moving from her agricultural upbringing to a factory job in one of China’s megacities — Return to Dust stays situated in its rural Gansu province setting, observing both the small and the more substantial ways that modern government programs and other subtle forms of postsocialist intervention shape the lives of a farmer and his wife.

Both middle-aged and unwed, the quiet and introverted Ma Youtie (Wu Renlin) and handicapped Cao Guiying (Hai Qing) are looked at as black sheep by their respective families — such that their arranged marriage is almost regarded more as a means of unburdening kin than it is looked at for its potential to create a successful union. Despite these dubious beginnings, though, Youtie and Guiying quickly fall in love, finding in each other a kindness and empathy that neither has seemingly known much in their lives. Li keys into this spirit, and it becomes an extension for what he’s doing with his film — daring us to write off his modest ambitions, his mostly unsentimental but never uncaring view of rural life, in the same way many in Youtie and Guiying’s orbit disregard their simple contentment.

That effort works, in part, because of the careful balance struck by Li’s filmmaking. Return to Dust is a visually lush film, full of beautifully composed frames and golden-hour lighting, but it also doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh and difficult work undertaken by its central couple (especially the tireless Youtie, who has to compensate for the physical labor that Guiying’s body isn’t capable of performing). Some moments here derive their uncommon grace from the way that Li captures these two essences at work simultaneously – as with the many sequences of the couple gradually building their own home, placing one mud-formed brick at a time in a great spiral around their plot of land. Like many arthouse filmmakers, Li relies some on duration to communicate hardship, but his camera tends to be more animated, his attention to images more acute. The balance of Return to Dust is that it depicts difficult work, but it also recognizes that the two people performing it are at the same time finding themselves in the throes of an unfamiliar and deeply meaningful emotional relationship.

Beauty is often justified within the visual field of this film because darkness, various insinuating threats to the couple’s happiness, always feel present somewhere outside the frame. We learn that, in the past, Guiying was a victim of physical abuse by her family, the result of which left her handicapped. We’re also introduced to a number of estranged family members and assorted local authorities who flit in and out of Youtie and Guiying’s life, a reminder of the economic, social, and political forces that rend agency away from even those who endeavor to remain rural farmers with their own land. In particular, Return to Dust articulates the drivers of spatial dislocation, as the couple first have to leave the temporary housing that was allotted to them by family, while they worked to construct a house on their own land; are later confronted with the aggressive policies that the government uses to demolish uninhabited or unsafe structures; and finally are subjected to a relocation initiative that pressure trading plots of land for small apartments in developed urban areas.

There is clear and incisive socio-political commentary embedded in Return to Dust, but it’s probably been less noticeable for some because of the direction in which Li decides to take his film. Instead of having the tragedy that strikes here be the result of some nefarious force of modernization or government initiative, Return to Dust opts for a low-key denouement, one in the spirit of the Biblical verse from which it takes its name. As with the rest of the film, nothing is sensationalized — even an initially wrenching death transforms into a cause for quiet reflection and an earnest effort to reconcile loss with the happiness that preceded it, and to then decide what comes next. There’s a uniqueness to that approach — to the specific resolution that this film accepts — which serves to elevate Return to Dust to more than the sum of its cultural commentary or dramatic beats, and allow it to become an almost spiritual inquiry into what it means to go through life enduring pain in order to know some joy.

DIRECTOR: Li Ruijun;  CAST: Wu Renlin, Hai Qing, Yang Guangrui;  DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement;  IN THEATERS: July 21;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 14 min.

Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Distpach 7.