Before any of the human characters appear on screen in Return to Dust, the camera frames the donkey that will pull their cart and till their fields. For me, this evokes a specific cinematic memory, the donkey in Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar, an emblem of gentleness and patient suffering. In both films, how characters treat the animal is a kind of moral barometer, and at the same time the human/animal relationship leads toward understanding how the humans also fit into a system of social relations: how they also suffer and are, in part at least, products of their setting.
The film is set in the rugged farmlands of Gansu province, bordering the Gobi Desert, and its main characters are two people past the usual marriage age, whose families treat them as burdens. We encounter Fourth Brother Ma Youtie as he comes from mucking out the donkey’s stall to meet the match his family has arranged.
The film’s realist approach isn’t heavy on exposition, but snatches of conversation show that by marrying him off, the elder brother will clear the way for his own son to marry. The match is Cao Guiying, a woman they say nobody else would want. Beaten for years by her family, she has a bladder control problem and is infertile and physically disabled.
In case this sounds oppressive, let me reassure you that instead, the film is a loving portrayal of Fourth Brother and Guiying’s subsequent life together.
It was filmed beautifully by Wang Weihua, using long takes and stationary shots of the landscape. It immerses viewers in the details of rural life, including the work of farming wheat and corn and the couple’s labor to build their own clay brick house — beginning with making the bricks. But somehow it feels briskly paced, which may help account for the fact that, remarkably for an art-house film, it led the Chinese box office in early September 2022 after moving from theatrical to streaming release. More importantly, even if the shape of the story can be guessed, nothing is predetermined or serves a point that a lesser filmmaker might want to make.
Writer/director Li Ruijun comes from Gansu province and has made other independent features about rural life, such as The Old Donkey (2010). To show all four seasons, he and the crew filmed over the course of a year. Wu Renlin, a farmer who is the director’s uncle, plays Fourth Brother Ma. On the other hand, Guiying is played by veteran actress Hai Qing, whom audiences may know from the Seattle-set Finding Mr. Right. To perform her role, Hai Qing lived with Wu Renlin, learned to farm, and helped to build the mud-brick house.
The film treats the couple as part of a community but also set apart from it. Fourth Brother is upright in his dealings and treats his wife kindly; isolated and timid at first, their marriage allows them to develop in ways that their harsh surroundings don’t encourage. They are not idealized, though. Once, during hard work on the farm, Fourth Brother calls his wife useless, echoing callous remarks made by a chorus of villagers. If we understand his frustration at this moment, we may also understand the villagers’ behavior as an adaptation to living in precariousness.
The couple is put upon by all their social relations. First, Fourth Brother turns out to have rare Rh-negative “panda” blood needed by a family of grain merchants.
Selling blood is now illegal in China, but the blood trade has a literary pedigree in Yu Hua’s novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant as a site where medical, social, and economic relationships meet. Ma performs his duty by donating blood, asserting his dignity by refusing the merchant family’s attempt to do him inexpensive favors.
In one scene, Fourth Brother Ma haggles with a woman over the price of a coat for his wife — he only has 50 yuan, but he will return with 100 on his next visit to town — while in the background the merchant’s son talks on his cellphone about financial difficulties, which might require selling one of the family’s BMWs. The movie registers these inequalities without leaping to judgment.
Fourth Brother and Guiying live in unoccupied houses, whose owner has gone to the city for work. They are displaced twice when a government program for improving rural life pays to demolish vacant houses. We watch them hang the same paper double happiness sign above their bedstead three times, and when they are gone, the home they built with their own hands will be demolished too.
The film was removed from Chinese cinemas and streaming services in the lead-up to the 20th National Congress last autumn. It seems possible that the movie’s interest in the disappearance of rural forms of life was taken as criticism of government policy. The movie is also less interested in the whole community than in the life the couple has found alongside it. Closing text tells us that after his wife’s death, Fourth Brother moved to a government-provided city flat to start a new life, but the final scenes hint at suicide. Maybe no other life is possible for Ma, like the donkey that doesn’t have a place to go when freed.
Return to Dust will be screened at the Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Avenue), July 26 through August 9; see nwfilmforum.org for dates and showtimes.