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Return to Dust

Director: Ruijun Li (China). Year of Release: 2022

Gansu, rural Northern China. A transaction to organise an arranged marriage. Both partners are already getting on in age. Ma’s family refer to him as the Fourth Brother – there’s a lot of usage of terms like this or “Second Uncle” to show the relative status accorded to the firstborn. Cao Guiyang is shy, disabled, unable to have children, and perpetually incontinent. After the meeting has not been going on for not very long at all, she excuses herself to go in search of the toilet.

Ma and Guiyang are not marrying for love, but because they are the last ones left and their families are tired of looking after them. Posing for a wedding photograph, they can barely look at each other, or even at the cameraman, He calls on them to look up and smile, but their eyes remain focussed on the ground directly in front of them. Eventually he takes a photo from the happy day which shows them looking as if they’re hating every minute of it.

Ma and Guiyang start life as farmers. Forced out of their home to let a bureaucrat profit from the compensation, they decide to build their own house. You know the statement about watching paint dry? Well this is film contains some long scenes of people waiting for cement to lose its wetness so it can be used to build a wall. This at least gives us a break from the prolonged scenes of them loading hay onto the back of a cart.

Zhang Yongfu, one of the local landlords develops a rare blood disease, and needs a transfusion. Ma is the only person in the village with the right blood type. One villager asks why they should be saving the wealthy parasite when it is they who are suffering from high rent and costs. Shouldn’t Zhang be transporting food to them in his plush BMW? Ma is less militant, pleading with Zhang’s son to make up the rent deficit. Believe it or not, the son is not impressed by his entreaties.

Some reviews argue that Ma’s donation of blood metaphorically shows his dependent relationship on the vampiric landlord. Well, there’s only so far you can go with metaphors, but you know which one I’d have preferred to see? Ma stopping for one moment from fawning at those who are richer and greedier than him, and driving a stake through the parasitic bastard’s heart. But this is a film which may occasionally hint at injustice, but never even acknowledges that this can be challenged.

Ma’s brother tries to encourage him to move to a high-rise apartment in the big city – somewhere that neither he nor Guinyang has ever visited. This is not down to any benevolence on Ma’s brother’s account. Chinese housing policies have got so crazy that there is money to be made offering an empty house for demolition. Maybe he would have still convinced Ma and Guiyang to leave, but they have only ever known farming. What other work are they to find?

Slowly, inevitably, we sink into sentimentality. Ma and Guiyang learn to accept each other, and even develop a sort of love. Ma buys Guiyang a warm coat, and helps her bathe in the river. She urges him to eat although she is sick and needs the nutrition. Do these moments of tenderness show that something special is developing between them? Maybe, maybe not. But I felt such a lack of engagement with either character, that I just didn’t care.

Watching Return to Dust reminded me of a Polish film I once watched with my friend Meike. Although it was a long time ago, and I can’t remember a single thing that happened inside the film, the memory remains with me vividly. A friend of Meike’s had told her that she must see the film. When it was finally over, we stared at each other in incomprehension. We had no idea who would want to go to a film like that, let alone recommend it.

It was not just that the film was so boring and uneventful that the person recommending it had obviously misunderstood Meike’s taste. We could not see any part of it that anyone would think she would enjoy. Reading almost unanimously ecstatic reviews of Return to Dust, I was overcome by a sense of déja-vu. These reviews lead you to expect a perceptive depiction of village life in China. My experience was more one of fidgeting in the cinema waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Return to Dust lasts over 2 hours and roughly covers a calendar year, and boy, do we sense this immense time. We just sit back and watch things happen, and that’s in the better scenes. Mostly, we’re watching them not happen. The protagonists endure all their misfortunes, and soak up the disrespect with which they are treated. I guess that we are supposed to find such stoicism to be admirable. I was just frustrated that they accept all inequalities without showing any resistance.

Apparently Return to Dusk “disappeared” from Chinese streaming services and is considered to be a great threat to the Chinese government. But the film contains no challenge to existing society. Ma and Guiyang are not allowed to have any real agency. They live in misery because they know no different. This leaves a vague hint that something might be not quite right but no sense that they can change it. This is not radicalism, but an acceptance and reinforcement of the status quo.

Obviously not all critics saw it that way, and nor, possibly, did the Chinese government. Besides which, my main criticism is not that the film explicitly demanded radical change. It is that what everything it did show was so damned boring, that it doesn’t really matter what it was trying to say. Maybe it inspired other viewers into radical action, or even just satisfaction at having seen a memorable film. It just left me entirely cold.

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