Return to Dust (2022) is director and screenwriter Li Ruijun’s (born in 1983) sixth feature film. Similar to Li’s earlier films, including The Old Donkey (2010), Fly with the Crane (2012), and River Road (2015), this film is set in his hometown, a remote and sandy village in Gaotai county, located in Gansu Province in Northwestern China. Most of Li’s films are concerned with the marginalization and demise of the traditional agricultural lifestyle in the face of China’s rapid urbanization and modernization. Consistent with earlier generations of Chinese independent filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke, Li employs a documentary and vérité filmmaking style, featuring long takes, non-professional actors (most of them are Li’s relatives), and the use of the local Gansu rural dialect. In Return to Dust, Li further blends reality and fiction by casting a well-known actress, Hai Qing, as the disabled and incontinent female protagonist Cao Guiying, and a non-professional actor, Wu Renlin (Li’s uncle-in-law) as the male protagonist, Ma Youtie, an impoverished and exploited peasant. The plot revolves around how these two middle-aged social outcasts gradually develop love in their arranged marriage and find happiness in the everyday hardship of farming and home-building. In many senses, this is a typical arthouse film, which usually targets a small niche domestic audience in big urban cities and an international audience in film festivals. But this low-budget film, with a cost of about 2 million RMB1, became the greatest box office sensation in the summer of 2022 in China. It grossed over 100 million RMB during its 67 days of showing in theatres (July 8-September 12) before it was suddenly and mysteriously taken down from all the country’s theatres and streaming sites.2
The film can be read as an elegy for the vanishing rural world in contemporary China. With the mass exodus of local young peasants migrating to urban industrial cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan — which Ma Youwen and Ma Chengwan briefly represent in the film — there are many discarded vacant houses for the homeless Ma Youtie and his newlywed wife to dwell in temporarily.
Many of the senior peasants who remained behind have transferred their right to use the land and abandoned farming, too. Against this background, Ma Youtie is depicted as what I call “China’s last peasant,” who maintains a quintessential bond with the soil and the farmland. Usually taciturn and refrained, Ma delivers strikingly thought-provoking lines in the film. In one scene, he told Guiying: “Everything starts from and grows in the soil. Dirt is very clean. The soil doesn’t despise us. How can we despise soil? The soil rewards us whether you’re rich and powerful, or an ordinary person. You plant a bag of wheat, and it will repay you with tenfold or even twenty-fold of bags.” In another scene, he asks rhetorically while sowing: “How can a peasant live without land?”
Later, when he is offered the opportunity to live in a new apartment in a tall building because of a government policy on poverty alleviation, Ma’s immediate reaction is, “If I move there, where would I keep my donkey, pigs, and chicken?” When millions of Chinese peasants are forced to experience urbanization, they are uprooted from the soil, annihilating their identity as peasants. In an extremely sympathetic and nostalgic tone, the film meticulously documents and poetically presents the disappearing rural lifestyle, the bucolic and pastoral landscape, and the simple joy that the couple savors, such as the wheat flower and the straw donkey.
Ma’s singularity as the last peasant is symbolically hinted at in the plot as he is the only villager with the rare Rh negative blood type, or “panda blood,” as referred to in the film. In this sense, Ma’s marginality and exclusion are doomed. In the film, Youtie is abandoned by his blood brother, despised by fellow villagers, neglected by the village cadres, and exploited by the new rich. Yet at the same time, his character is romanticized and idealized as embodying all the “rare” lost values and virtues: kindness, integrity, endurance, and perseverance. The film thus portrays a unique yet ambivalent peasant image. Ma Youtie is capable of farming and skilled in house-building, yet he spent the past 40 years of his life living with his brother as a free laborer. He is indifferent to the ridicule and contempt from others but is emotional and sensitive enough to care for Guiying, the swallow, their donkey, and the chicken.
Unlike Ermo, in the Fifth generation director Zhou Xiaowen’s film Ermo (1994), who sells blood and finally earns a TV, Ma Youtie is forced to give his blood for free to a sick entrepreneur and finally offers a paper 8D TV as a sacrifice on Guiying’s tomb. Ma is also different from the madman narrator Zhang Yinsheng in Jia Pingwa’s novel Qin Opera (2005), which similarly presents a marginalized and dwindling peasant culture in southeast Shaanxi with the increasing marketization and urbanization in the late 1990s. But interestingly, one of the most memorable lines in Return to Dust is from a madman, who may be Ma’s alter ego:
“To the sickle, what could the wheat say?
to the pecking sparrows, what could the wheat say?
to the grinder, what could the wheat say?
to be seeded, what could the wheat say?”
In a related scene, when Guiying mistakenly pulls out a wheat seedling, Ma says: “That’s OK. It’ll become fertilizer for other crops. Everyone has his own destination. Wheat is no different. It has its fate, too. When summer comes, it’ll be cut down anyway.” Like the wheat, Ma is powerless and helpless in the face of the unavoidable decimation of the countryside and rural life. To a certain degree, the magic of romantic love might have empowered the vulnerable Youtie and accounts for his dramatic change after marriage. Yet, their love is so fragile and ephemeral. After Guiying dies by drowning, Ma lies down with a bottle of pesticide on the table. At the very end of the long ending credits, a small line reads: “With the help of the government and the kind-hearted villagers, Ma Youtie moves to the new apartment and starts a new life.” The ambiguous and sarcastic ending of the film renders the last peasant powerless and even unable to control his own death of “returning to dust.”3
This rural film, simple in plot yet rich in detail, received the highest rating (8.5/10) of the Chinese films in 2022 on the review platform douban (similar to Rotten Tomatoes). Interestingly, the dramatic surge in the film’s box office revenue did not happen during the exclusive theatrical window of its first month of showing, but rather after it became available for online streaming after August 9, 2022, defying the film industry norms.
Among others, the short videos on TikTok (douyin in China), kuaishou, Bilibili, Wechat, and other video-sharing platforms played a key role in promoting the film and spurring the audience to watch the film on the silver screen. Various film clips were edited, reworked, and analyzed by influencers, forwarded by their mass followings, and widely circulated on social media. According to an independent study on the film market, TikTok videos on this film garnered 100 million new views on August 26 and increased to 300 million new views in three days on August 29.4 Correspondingly, the audience for this film is no longer limited to the cultural elites and intellectuals in big urban cities, as was the case for earlier independent arthouse films. Instead, the film attracted a large lower-class audience in small cities and outlying towns, who are the same target users of the short video platform kuaishou. For instance, the viewers from third- and fourth-tier cities accounted for almost one-third of the total theatre audience during the last week in August.5 Many urban and suburban audiences relate the film to their agricultural roots, while many others echo the suffering of the protagonists from similar experiences of survival and struggle in the third year of the pandemic, which witnessed many tragic and horrendous events in 2022, such as the chained woman incident in January, the Shanghai lockdown in April, and the Tangshan restaurant attack in June, not to mention the daily stress from China’s zero-Covid restrictions. Yet as the audience becomes more heterogenous, the receptions to the film also become more varied and controversial. Like the Fifth generation and Sixth generation filmmakers, Li Ruijun is maligned with accusations of self-Orientalism and self-exoticism to cater to the international festival judges (the film won the nomination for the Golden Bear at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival in February 2022).
How did such an underground art film exposing the dark side of China receive initial approval from censors? The director may have strategically set the film in 2011, exactly one year earlier than 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power. The final “happy ending” I mentioned above may also be a tactic to win the censors’ approval. However, as Brian Henderson argues, films often treat issues facing society at the time of their production rather than the time in which they are set.6 Although Return to Dust is set in 2011, it inadvertently includes footage from a Youku outdoor reality show, On the Road (lü xing), about the man-eating fish or piraña in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, which was produced in 2014. Moreover, the film touches on several government policies. Although “building new villages” has been a Party slogan since Hu Jintao’s regime, a zhihu (similar to Quora) user, daoyiweiming, argues that the official policies such as the option to rent land, renting, demolition of older peasant homes, and poverty alleviation were implemented in Gansu actually around 2015-2020, during Xi’s reign.7 More crucially, Xi had declared victory in ending extreme poverty, one of his trademark achievements, in 2021. Therefore, it is not surprising that this grim film on poverty was banned one month before the 20th CCP National Congress, which was held in October when Xi secured his third term as China’s paramount leader. Just as its Chinese title, yin ru chen yan (“hidden and fell into oblivion”) suggests, this film has to be hidden and invisible from the public.
- Zhao, Ziwen. “A top-grossing film was pulled in China. No one knows why.” South China Morning Post. September 30, 2022. ↩
- As the Chinese streaming service Youku (similar to Youtube) purchased the film’s global online distribution rights, it is unavailable on overseas streaming sites such as Netflix. ↩
- The impossibility of returning to soil is actually the theme of one of the director’s earlier films, Fly with the Crane (2012). Adapted from Su Tong’s short story with the same title, the film is about a traditional elderly villager who is not willing to be cremated but ends up being buried alive by his innocent grandchildren. ↩
- The data is from http://www.199it.com/archives/1488128.html ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- In his analysis of The Searchers, Henderson reads this film about relations between whites and Native Americans in 1868–1873 as a film about relations between whites and African Americans in 1956. See Brian Henderson, See “ ‘The Searchers’: An American Dilemma,” Film Quarterly 34.2 (Winter 1980–1981): 9–23. ↩
- The zhihu link is https://www.zhihu.com/question/552184324 ↩