Berlinale 2022 review: Return to Dust (Li Ruijun)

“A patient, quietly devastating study of village life shaped by the farmers’ deep connection with the land, Return to Dust marks a major step forward for Chinese director Li Ruijun.”

A patient, quietly devastating study of village life shaped by the farmers’ deep connection with the land, Return to Dust (Yin Ru Chen Yan) marks a major step forward for Chinese director Li Ruijun. Following 2017’s Cannes Un Certain Regard selection Walking Past the Future (which was a well-intentioned but one-note piece of urban miserabilism), this Golden Bear contender functions as a return to the filmmaker’s rural roots as well as a notable expansion of his favourite themes. While lengthy scenes of repetitive farming work may challenge some viewers, Return to Dust offers rich rewards for audiences willing to go along with its gentle, cyclical rhythms. An extensive festival tour and several theatrical bookings seem likely following its high-profile launch in Berlin.

Return to Dust follows “Iron” Ma (a fitting nickname considering the admirable perseverance he demonstrates throughout the film), a withdrawn farmer in Northern China, whose marriage with a disabled woman named Cao Guiying is arranged in the opening scene. The arrangement is simply meant to relieve their families of what they consider to be the “burden” of two unmarried adults, but Li handles these early scenes with unexpected tenderness. This is not quite a love story, but a delicate bond is gradually formed between Ma and Cao as they grow more affectionate towards one another after long years of solitude and humiliation. She waits for him with a lamp and a jar of hot water as he returns late from an errand; he finds a coat for her as the unforgiving winter approaches. They face new obstacles at every step: a privileged businessman requests blood “donations” from the villagers in order to survive a rare disease and Ma is identified as the only suitable donor. The village is almost isolated and the few remaining homes are being purchased, only to be quickly destroyed, for a forced urban development project. Ma and Cao move from one vacant house to the next, but it soon becomes clear that the only possible solution for them is to build their own home. Ma prepares dozens of mud bricks one by one and starts working on constructing a small cottage for the couple, while also harvesting wheat and corn in vast fields that provide them with a modest livelihood.

Contemporary Chinese cinema frequently explores themes like internal migration, rapid urbanization, growing social inequalities, and the loss of age-old customs. But it is not often that these significant issues are treated in a nuanced way that is genuinely attuned to the generosity of the land and the virtues of the people who devote their lives to it. Return to Dust is distinguished by Li’s appreciation for his characters and their pastoral surroundings – an approach that gives the film a kind and humanistic tone despite all the misfortunes Ma and Cao face. Urban audiences may be inclined to quickly label these characters as naïve (or worse, foolish) because of their lack of formal education and inability to navigate social structures that govern their lives. But as Return to Dust progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that Li finds much to admire in their patience, dedication and skill. Ma and Cao know how to co-exist in nature, they understand the way soil gives and takes. At one point Ma says, “everything comes from soil,” and asks, “soil does not detest us, why shall we detest soil?” Simple scenes about catching fish, helping hens to hatch eggs, or saving swallows whose nests are destroyed become surprisingly moving and meaningful thanks to Li’s respectful and caring portrayal of nature.

Considering the rustic beauty of its locations, it is not surprising that Return to Dust features many lovely compositions, particularly as the camera watches Ma and Cao from a distance. The striking landscapes provide a memorable background to the story, but these images are powerful for reasons beyond their considerable aesthetic quality. Return to Dust depicts an improbably desolate, unpopulated milieu, almost completely ignored and forgotten by the urban crowds in nearby city centers. When Ma finally visits a tall apartment building almost 100 minutes into the film, the contrast between the barren landscape that dominates most of Return to Dust and the ugly mass of concrete seen during this brief detour becomes even more prominent. This is not really a shock or a dilemma for Ma; he knows where he wants to be, where his life really is and should remain. But the more educated and wealthier folks in the building are unable to understand him when he asks where his beloved goat would go if he were to move to such an apartment. Throughout Return to Dust, such micro-level interactions repeatedly reveal many macro-level problems and divides that plague contemporary societies in China and elsewhere in the world.

Return to Dust is in dialogue with a celebrated corpus of Chinese films about life in the countryside. One can see traces of Zhang Yimou’s early collaborations with Gong Li or other Fifth Generation classics in Li Ruijun’s film, or perhaps associate some of the thematic concerns in this elegiac story with Jia Zhangke’s memorable films about the effects of urbanization in contemporary China. Aided by remarkable performances from Wu Renlin and Hai Qing (whose thoughtful portrayal of a disabled character sadly still remains a rarity in world cinema), Return to Dust merits favourable comparisons with this distinguished set of modern Chinese classics.