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RETURN TO DUST (2022, CHN) – 8/10

With a gentle and empathetic naturalistic drama set in the rural northern Chinese province of Gansu, the main program of the festival in Berlin presented the young Chinese filmmaker Li Ruijin. In terms of style and subject matter, it seems to me that Li is a follower of a somewhat older and better-known colleague named Zhangke Jia, one of the leading filmmakers from the so-called of the movement of the sixth generation of local directors who also in his most famous films such as “Still Life” and “Touch of Sin” dealt with the ordinary lives of Chinese whose destinies are changing due to modernization and globalization.

Modernity and globalization are definitely not the first associations we will think of when we see the two main protagonists of “Return to Dust”. Ma Youtie is a silent and withdrawn poor farmer, a recluse for whom his older sister will arrange a marriage with Guiying, a handicapped and unfortunate woman who has been abused by her family members for years. Both are already middle-aged and have lived sad, lonely lives, but very soon a closeness will begin to develop between the two. And we mostly follow their simple, ordinary village life and how they fall in love and connect, and how these two unhappy, modest and simple people create their own world in which they try to pay as little attention to what’s around them as possible.

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However, it is clear that this is not a world tailor-made for such people who do not actually have their own home, but instead they constantly move from one to another abandoned house where peasants who have since moved to the city once lived. As the government encourages the relocation and abandonment of these rural wastelands and pays those who move to the cities to have their houses demolished, so Ma and Guiying with their donkey, pigs and chickens must constantly move. And it will be like that until Ma finally decides to build his own earthen house for the two of them, and even though the Chinese censorship commission literally ruined the ending of the film by changing some scenes and text, “Return to Dust” was still an impressive and striking film about a world which disappears.

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Li opted for a classic naturalistic approach with mostly long shots in which we often follow their ordinary life. How they cultivate the land, how Ma makes mud blocks with which to build the house, and their relationship subtly develops parallel to that. Although Ma did not plan to marry, he initially sees his wife as a person who could come in handy to help him with his business. She is always by his side and helps as much as she can, considering his limp arm and leg and constant problems with incontinence, but over time their relationship becomes more and more tender. From a random helper who happened to be there by chance, they will begin to get closer, and Ma will become Guiying’s protector, and we will realize that he is actually a wonderful, hardworking and humble man full of love and care that he can finally direct to someone.

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And that unfortunate woman, who became disabled from the beating, will start to open up and break free with her husband, but as you can imagine, it’s hard to expect a story with a happy ending from a film like this. So that it does not appear that their relationship is exclusively followed, right at the start Li introduces us to the circumstances that prevail in the countryside, so practically all the land is owned by a local tycoon who is seriously ill. It will turn out that Ma is the only one in the town who has a rare blood type like him, and that rich landowner will squeeze him to the end, both literally and figuratively, because Ma is one of those simple, humble guys who wants nothing in return and doesn’t want anyone’s help. Although at first “Return to Dust” may seem like a fairly simple story, it is a film that hides a lot of beauty and tenderness, a wonderful authentic drama seasoned with quality photography and impressive locations.