At the beginning is the donkey in this film, he appears in the first shot, looking through the hole in his stable. And then remains present in the further course, patiently or waiting, sometimes curiously sticking his nose into a sack, sometimes he is snapped at – “He’s eating my hair out of my head!” – and once he can really gallop and bring home a cart full of grain. It is the third time in recent weeks, following Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, that such an animal has appeared in recent films.
The second creature is then Brother Four, he is just mucking out the donkey’s stable, then he steps into the yard where the snowflakes are swirling. He should finally come into the house, where the family is holding council, the women are arranging a marriage for him. Youtie Ma, that’s Brother Four’s name, should marry Guiying, then he would finally be away from the family farm and would set up his own existence as a farmer. The bride Guiying is a kind of “scrap goods” on the marriage market, she is considered to be retarded, incontinent and sterile.
This cruel, cynical deal is the beginning of an incredibly tender love story in Li Ruijun’s film Return to Dust. It is difficult to establish one’s own existence in rural China, one is dependent on the political functionaries and on the big landowners who still determine the means of production. The farmers are cheated on the lease terms, and only reluctantly are they allowed to cultivate the land on their own and sell the harvest. Socialism makes very good use of the old feudal structures. There are bonuses from the state so that the empty, miserable huts are demolished. Youtie Ma is the only one in the village whose blood is rhesus negative, and because one of the feudal lords urgently needs it, Ma has to keep donating.
Soon a calm serenity permeates this hard existence, through the undaunted effort to be independent, a little bit of happiness. John Ford and Jean Renoir made films like this in America in the 1940s, films that live entirely from rhythm, not from dramaturgy. The couple forms bricks from clay and builds a magnificent house of their own. “Tie yourself up so you don’t fall off,” Youtie Ma says to his wife, because they’ve gone to sleep on the roof, where it’s airier. There is a wonderful transparency in this film, the fire mediates between the material world and the afterlife: the two burn paper money so that the dead can also afford something in the afterlife.
The film, shot for little money, was a hit with audiences – until the censors intervened
Director Li Ruijun went back to his home village in Northwest China’s Gansu Province to film. His film was made with little money and with lay people from the village, only Hai Qing, who plays Guiying, is a star in China. There is an exciting gradient between her and Wu Renlin, who embodies her husband, she is in shapeless dresses and trousers and always has to take a back seat, slow down. He carefully puts his mantous, the Chinese dumplings, into his mouth.
A film for the arthouses of the world, it was screened in competition at the 2022 Berlinale. Then it came to the cinemas in China and, in terms of audience popularity, soon prevailed against the big action spectacles. So the censorship board took a closer look at the film – and it was banned from theaters and taken from streaming services. A regime that wants to provide for its citizens in an all-round, i.e. authoritarian manner, cannot allow tendencies towards misery.
“Return To Dust” takes its time, you experience and feel how something develops, how something grows between the two people. What seems suspicious in a society that argues with revolution, with intervention, demolition and reconstruction. Cruelly ridiculous that towards the end the two are offered an apartment in a skyscraper in the city by the state, that’s intended as a tribute. “And where should my donkey go?”
The bitter end is apparently softened by the censorship – when the villagers meanly abandon Guiying. What remains is a small flower pressed onto the hand with grains of wheat. A bulldozer drives up and the donkey backs out of the picture at the end.
Yin ru chen yan, China 2022 – Director, Script, Editor: Li Ruijun. Camera: Wang Weihua. Music: Peyman Yazdanian. Starring: Wu Renlin, Hai Qing. Rapid Eye Movies, 131 minutes. Theatrical release: March 2, 2023.