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Surprise hit indie film Return to Dust tells the moving love story between two village outcasts that is winning acclaim for its realistic portrayals of marginalized people in rural China

By Yi Ziyi Updated Nov.1

Stills from Return to Dust

The winter snow blankets the village and cornfields in silence. Inside a mud hut, middle-aged Ma Youtie silently feeds an old donkey before his highpitched sister-in-law calls him to come and meet his future wife, Cao Guiying, a disabled woman, for the first time. After Ma enters the room, he sits next to Cao awkwardly at the dining table.
They make no eye contact until Ma hears the donkey bray in pain outside as his older brother beats the animal. Ma leads the donkey into the hut and comforts it with whispers. Meanwhile, the sister-in-law tells Cao, who is incontinent, to go out to find a toilet so she “doesn’t make a fool of herself.” 

This is the opening of Return to Dust, the sixth feature written and directed by 39-yearold indie filmmaker Li Ruijun. Set in an impoverished village in Northwest China’s Gansu Province, it revolves around the developing relationship between the two village outcasts, Ma Youtie (Wu Renlin) and Cao Guiying (Hai Qing). Seeing them as burdens, their families force them into an arranged marriage. But as they farm and build a home of their own, the two find love, understanding and hope in each other. 

The film debuted on February 13 at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Bear Award as the only Chinese title. It premiered on July 8 in China, Li’s first feature to be screened nationwide. 

The film soon won critical acclaim as the year’s best Chinese film. On leading media website Douban, it scored 8.5/10 – the highest for a domestic film this year. By September 7, it brought in 100 million yuan (US$14.3m), already proving a box office success, since industry insiders forecast it would only take in 2 million yuan (US$290,000).

Farming Romance
Over 600 households live in the Gansu Province village of Huaqiangzi. Surrounded by desert, the village sees little rainfall. A dark river runs through the village, bringing relief from the torture of drought. Most villagers still live in mud houses. Their windows and roofs creak and groan in the strong northwest winds of winter.
Villagers there have farmed corn and wheat for generations. According to official statistics from Gaotai County, annual disposable income of the villagers in 2021 was only 17,970 yuan (US$2,604), with an average monthly income of less than 2,000 yuan (US$290). 

Born and raised there in 1983, Li Ruijun left the village to attend high school. When he began his career as a filmmaker in 2007, his beloved home village and its residents served as his primary source of inspiration. 

Like many villages in China, most of the young and middle-aged residents of Huaqiangzi left to work in cities, leaving children and the elderly behind. “A very few middleaged people who can’t leave the village have their own problems. Every time I return home, I find they haven’t changed much. They are the ones left behind who can’t leave,” Li told the Qiangjiang Evening News. 

Return to Dust focuses on this group. Like many of Li’s previous works, he set the story in his home village. Almost all the performers are villagers, including Wu Renlin, the lead actor who plays Ma Youtie. Wu, 55, is also the director’s uncle. Hai Qing, who portrays Cao Guiying, is the only professional actor in the cast, known for her roles in hit TV dramas such as Dwelling Narrowness (2009) and Wanggui & Anna (2009). 

The character Ma Youtie is the youngest and last unmarried son of his family. He is a hard worker, exploited by his third elder brother after his parents and two eldest brothers died. Without a house or land of his own, Ma is a hopeless and penniless bachelor. 

Cao Guiying is also hopeless, if not worse off. Years of physical abuse from her older brother left her incontinent, and, more critically in the countryside, infertile. 

Eager to distance themselves from the two, Ma and Cao’s families arrange their marriage. However, the couple surprises all as true love develops between them. 

Vivid details about their lives unfold in long, single shot scenes: the newlyweds plough a field with their donkey, sow wheat seedlings, irrigate and harvest over the seasons. They carefully remove their paper-cut wedding decoration that reads “double happiness” above their bed every time they are forced to move, and hang it up again in their new home. Though childless, they hatch a dozen eggs with a heartfelt tenderness. They build their new home with bricks and earth on their own despite scorching heat and storms. 

Nevertheless, except for the heartwarming intimate moments between the two protagonists, the film never shies away from showing the cruel treatment the couple receives from their families and the village folks. Cao, due to her disability and incontinence, is despised and shunned by villagers everywhere she goes. Ma, the only with a rare blood group among the villagers, has to risk his life to donate blood three times to save the dying Zhang Yongfu, the wealthiest man in the village and a land contractor. The villagers feel Zhang must survive, as he owes them money in wages and rent for their farming land. But Ma’s life-threatening donation neither receives any reward from Zhang’s family nor gratitude from the villagers. Moreover, before the couple build a house of their own, they were kicked out from their previous humble abodes twice by their families who want to demolish the shabby old houses to get relocation compensation provided by the local government. 

Time plays a prominent role in the film. “I always wanted to make a film about the course of the four seasons to show the relationship between people, nature and earth over time,” the director wrote on Douban. 

Production began in early February 2020 and the film was shot over four seasons: the two protagonists meet and get married in winter, plough and sow the next spring, weed and fertilize the field in summer, harvest in autumn and witness the decay of life in winter again.

Poster from Return to Dust

All About Roots
Most of Li Ruijun’s work, such as his “Earth Trilogy” – The Old Donkey (2010), Fly with the Crane (2012) and River Road (2014), focus on rural decay in northwest China, migrant workers who leave home and those left behind, and the relationship between rural people and the land. 

The Old Donkey tells the story of a 73-yearold farmer. Financially and emotionally abandoned by his children who work in cities, he sticks to the land where he grew up. He lives alone, managing land near his family plot under threat from desertification. In Fly with the Crane, which made the Horizons selection of the 69th Venice International Film Festival, 73-year-old village coffin maker Old Ma insists that after he dies, his grandchildren bury him instead of cremating him, even though authorities had banned burials. 

Li’s Walking Past the Future (2017), selected for the Un Certain Regard section of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, shifts his lens to the predicament of young migrant workers who left their farmland behind for China’s megacity Shenzhen. 

Return to Dust focuses on a pair of marginalized people abandoned by their families but accepted by the earth. 

“Who would accept these two lonely outcasts? Only the earth. It has unconditional love for human beings. It will silently take you in and never abandon you regardless of your wealth, status or identity. You sow a bag of wheat seeds into the earth and you will harvest dozens of bags from it – this is the logic of the earth,” Li told Qianjiang Evening News. 

Production on Return to Dust gave Li a unique opportunity to become immersed in rural life. He lived in the village for almost a year to gain insight into farming grain, raising chickens and building mud houses to present them as realistically as possible. 

Li rented five mu (approximately 3.3 square kilometers) of arable land from an acquaintance, planting corn and wheat. He bought an incubator to hatch eggs and designed the layout of the house. Li’s parents, relatives and village friends, many of whom were working in cities, came back to pitch in. 

“That year was full of joy. Not everyone gets the chance to go home and live as a villager for an entire year. After all, lots of rural people have nothing to return to anymore,” Li said.

Against All Odds
Return to Dust was a sleeper hit at the box office. After its first week on July 8, the indie art-house film only brought in 1.57 million yuan (US$220,000). Industry insiders forecasted a total box office run of 2 million yuan (US$290,000). 

But 40 days after its release, its box office numbers skyrocketed. In the first week of September, it went from 30 million yuan (US$4.3m) in revenue to 100 million yuan (US$14.3m). It raked in 14.38 million (US$2m) in a single day in September. As the film’s positive reception increased, theaters repeatedly extended its run from one month to three months ending September 30. 

Word of mouth was behind the push, with fans taking to platforms such as Douyin (China’s TikTok) and video site Bilibili to wax lyrical about the film. On Douyin alone, videos hashtagged Return to Dust have garnered more than 2.58 billion views. 

While most netizens praised the film for its realism and relatability, some argued it overemphasizes the suffering of rural people and the poor condition of Chinese villages. Others condemned it for dramatizing “the bleak realities of Chinese villages to cater to judges on international award panels.” 

“I feel the film is strikingly realistic. When watching the film, lots of faces of villagers from my hometown kept popping up in my mind,” said Ge Ou, a 32-year-old history teacher in Beijing originally from a village in Yuanping County, North China’s Shanxi Province. 

“Many on social media questioned the director’s dramatization of the protagonists’ miserable fates and whether nowadays there are still people who live in such an extremely poor and hopeless state in China’s villages. I want to say that the bleak realities depicted in the film exist in many impoverished villages in northwestern China,” Ge told NewsChina. 

“There are not only prosperous ‘new countrysides’ and happy ‘new peasants’ in the eastern and southeastern coastal areas of our country, but also lots of poor villages in the northwest. Also, there are lots of marginalized people in rural areas discriminated against, such as the disabled, middle-aged and old unmarried men and women and childless couples. I’m so pleased that this film has faithfully and empathetically portrayed these groups,” Ge said. 

On July 25, vlogger Yige Caixiang posted the mini documentary How Second Uncle Cured My Mental Burnout after Being Back in the Village for Three Days on short video platform Bilibili. The video went viral on Chinese social media, racking up 10 million views in a single day. 

It tells the story of Second Uncle, a 66-year-old disabled carpenter and the vlogger’s uncle-in-law, who overcomes his adversities – disability, lack of access to education, poverty and bachelorhood – with resilience and optimism. 

Many netizens compared Second Uncle with Return to Dust for their realistic depictions of living conditions in villages. Some called the short video “the vlog version of Return to Dust.” Some netizens said that the phenomenal popularity of Second Uncle and Return to Dust reflects the Chinese audience’s longing for film and television that faithfully portray the lives of people at the bottom rungs of society who have long been misrepresented or altogether absent. 

Song Fangjin, screenwriter of 19 films and television series including the TV series Cellphone (2009), posted his thoughts to Weibo about Second Uncle on July 26: “A vlog that properly tells a good story that spreads at meteoric speed and on a terrifying scale in a single day – tragically reflects the bleak reality that many current [Chinese] films and television series are so hollow, shallow and out of touch that audiences increasingly feel unable to relate to them.” 

On April 25 last year, during a lecture at Gulouxi Theater in Beijing, Mao Jian, writer and Chinese literature professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, castigated Chinese films and TV for their shallowness, money worship and misrepresentation of social realities. 

She pointed out that today’s Chinese film and television creators focus on social elites and wealthy people while stigmatizing the poor. In many shows, such as Ode to Joy (2016) and Nothing but Thirty (2020), creators endow wealthy characters with favorable qualities such as honesty, innocence, kindness and elegance, while painting poor characters – particularly those from rural areas – as dishonest, cunning and rude, Mao said. 

Li Ruijun said the people on Chinese society’s bottom rung, particularly its 500 million rural residents, deserve to be faithfully represented. 

“Life is like a marathon. Many people don’t make it anywhere – they just merged into the unseen background of those leading the race,” Li told Zhengguan News. 

“Those at the top of the social pyramid don’t need my lens to display their lives. Everyone sees them. I want to show the massive groups at the bottom of the pyramid. After all, in this marathon, everyone is giving it all they got,” Li said.