Following in the hoof-steps of the headlining animals of Cannes-prize-winner EO and the ill-fated donkey found in Reuben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or lifting Triangle of Sadness, comes another equine star. The stoical, quiet, affecting beast of burden in Li Ruijun’s much-admired drama is emblematic of the film’s larger appeal.
It’s unfortunate that the charms of director Li’s sixth feature have been overshadowed by reports concerning the supposed suppression of Return to Dust in its native China. One story suggested that the film was removed from a streaming service; another alleged that conversations concerning the film on the social media platform Weibo were being monitored.
Neither report holds up for a movie that grossed an astonishing 100 million yuan (€13.6 million) at the domestic box office, an extraordinary return from a budget of two million yuan. In early September, the film remained at the top of the box office, some nine weeks after release, and not sounding anything like “the film the PRC (People’s Republic of China) didn’t want you to see” that Western distributors claimed.
Return to Dust is a simple farming drama that unfolds in a small village in Gaotai, the director’s home province, where life is dominated by natural rhythms and wheat harvesting. Here, an inconvenient, ageing fourth brother, Youtie Ma (Wu Renlin), is hastily married off to Guiying Cao (Hai Qing), an incontinent, barren, and disabled younger woman.
As the newly married couple settles into work and domesticity, they find solace in one another. Guiying, who once watched her husband with his livestock and marvelled that his “donkey had a better life than me” discovers that he is kind and considerate. Small details – the purchase of a coat, the uncomfortable wedding picture – tug at the heartstrings.
Their way of life, however, is threatened by modernisation as locals move toward cities and government legislation demands the demolition of abandoned houses. It’s a wistful theme that has provided a thematic spine for Chinese cinema since the 1990s, but it is seldom so as it is here.
Cinematographer Wang Weihua’s gorgeous wide-angled camerawork gives a sense of greater changes across the landlocked province. Hai Qing, the glamorous star of Finding Mr Right, is unrecognisable in a cast largely drawn from Gaotai locals. In preparation for the film, she studied under her co-star Wu Renlin, a farmer who taught her to make mud bricks and to speak the regional dialect.
Interestingly, Tilda Swinton has frequently characterised the lead of Au Hasard Balthazar as “the best performance I have ever seen”. Return to Dust’s donkey is similarly incapable of artifice. His human co-stars aren’t far off that ideal.