Return To Dust
What a joy to watch a decent Chinese film, a rare joy! Time and again, I am disappointed in one Chinese film and then another. But not this one. Return to Dust is not one of those. It is a gem, a beauty and it is quietly powerful.
It is a heartbreaking tale of a couple in rural Gansu, set in the harsh landscape of the loess plateau in China’s northwest. The film opens when the couple, both having passed the bloom of their youth, starts to live together as husband and wife in a mud hut. But they are strangers. The marriage is conveniently arranged by their siblings who are keen to get rid of them. The Third Brother Iron Ma is the poorest man in the village with a donkey as his only possession and Guying has a disability – having trouble controlling her bladder, possibly the result of mistreatment by her brother and his wife.
Against all expectations, a tender bond slowly develops between them, which grows into deep love. At first, they hardly talk to each other and become chatty as they grow comfortable in each other’s company. There is no kissing or hardly any sign of physical intimacy. (save the time he gives her back a good rub when they soak themselves in the river to rid of dust.) Their way of showing affection is to press a wheat into each other’s hands and make a wheat-shaped flower print.
The rhyme of the film is slow, just like the pace of life in rural China, where people ‘rise when the sun is up and rest when the sun is down,’ but there’s never a dull moment.
The two leads delivered a stunning performance, especially Guiying, whose eyes convey so many emotions, resignation, anxiety and quiet strength. She is certainly no fool, despite her appearance. When she first sets her eyes on him, she sees him lovingly feeding corn to his donkey and she decides that he is a good man. And he is. He takes such good care of her that this invalid becomes the envy of women in the village.
I love the contrasts in the film, her frail frame vs her resilience; the beauty (the cinematography is stunning) vs the natural harsh environment and tenderness vs hardship.
Their love story is woven with broad social background with a relocation project going on as part of the poverty alleviation project.
The film also explores the theme of fate. At one point, whiling weeding, Guiying accidentally cuts a wheat sampling into half. Upset, she shows it to her husband. Iron Ma tells her not to worry, saying it will now be a fertilizer for other samplings. “It’s fate,” he says.
Before a tragedy strikes, she laments to her husband: “I am so lucky. Before when I was being mistreated, I never got ill; now I eat well and live well, I got sick.”
Being the poorest living in the bottom of the society, they are vulnerable with limited agency. The only thing they know is to work hard and together, they achieve plenty of success. Ultimately, they don’t have control over their fate.
In the last shot, the house, which the couple built with their blood and sweet, is being demolition, turning into dust in the big mouth of a bulldozer. He is going to move to a modern flat in the nearby town.
The film became very popular among the Chinese audience until it was banned, possibly because it does not present a flattering image of rural China. I think this is absolutely insane. As the West turns increasingly hostile towards China, this is exactly the sort of film the Chinese authorities should promote: a well-told story that people from outside China can relate to with hard-working and lovable characters like Iron and Guiying.
I went last night with a friend and both of us melted into tears. Do go to see it when you can.