A tender tale about the transformative nature of love, Return to Dust — the sixth film by acclaimed Chinese director Li Ruijun — expands into a poignant story of resilience against the conventions of society and the exploitation of farm workers.
Return to Dust
Shot entirely in Li Ruijun’s home province of Gansu, against the backdrop of majestic sand dunes, Return to Dust draws from the extreme beauty of the region’s barren landscape for the stark poetry and the intense simplicity of its absorbing storytelling.
Ma Youtie (Wu Renlin) and Cao Guiying (Hai Qing) are two middle-aged outcasts. He is a taciturn farmer, and owns nothing but a donkey; she is disabled and suffers from chronic incontinence. Being single at their age is simply inconceivable in rural China and it has also become a burden on their respective families, who have decided, regardless of the pair’s wishes, to arrange their marriage.
What seems at first like an odd and doomed relationship gradually blossoms into a gentle late-life love and tender companionship. Together Youtie and Guiying will discover the small joys of everyday life and will find the strength to endure the hardship of poverty that borders on the extreme. With patience and determination, they will repair one of the village’s abandoned houses to make it their love nest, only to see it demolished shortly thereafter — returned to dust — as part of the ambitious urbanization program that has taken place in China over the past decade. An ancestral peasant wisdom seems to guide them to the peaceful acceptance of adverse events, letting endless precious moments, embedded in the passage of seasons, form the fabric of their simple life.
Li Ruijun’s bold decision to tell the story of such an unlikely love — and the equally bold move of pairing Hai, an accomplished actress with the director’s uncle and real farmer Wu in the role of Youtie — proves right, and leads to one of the most touching and lyrical films of this year.