Return to Dust
Two people who exist on the fringes of society, apparently barely tolerated by their own families, are pushed into an arranged marriage in rural China; it doesn’t exactly sound like an uplifting time at the cinema. Happily, Return to Dust is an unexpected pleasure, and is a peaceful, almost soothing viewing experience.
Youtie “Iron” Ma (played by Wu Renlin – the character’s brothers are called gold, silver and a third, who is presumably bronze) is well into middle age and still single. He’s paired with Guiying Cao (Hai Qing), the unmarried, disabled daughter of another family in the village, whose family are happy to be rid of her. Without much say in the matter, the pair are married and begin to build a life together.
It’s a tremendously graceful piece of filmmaking, with a light, compassionate touch. All the pieces come together in a richly satisfying way, and it’s practically inevitable that a viewer will become emotionally invested in Youtie and Guiying. A fleeting period of uncertainty between the pair is replaced by pragmatism, and the two simply get on with things as best they can, with a companionable affection developing.
The changing of the seasons, and the nuances of rural life required to make the most of those seasons form the basic narrative flow here. The looming threat of urban encroachment, along with commercial complications in being paid for their crops, makes it clear that this is a vanishing way of life, although the film isn’t intended to serve as a call to action.
Both Wu and Hai give their characters a reserved dignity, with Hai being particularly impressive as Cao. With her softly spoken manner and refusal to be downtrodden, Hai couldn’t be more understated as she delivers a performance of great delicacy. The pair are aided by a supremely placid and obliging donkey, whose uncomplaining fortitude mirrors his masters. Return to Dust is an unhurried, rather affecting piece of humanism.
Return to Dust is released in select UK cinemas on 4th November 2022.
Watch the trailer for Return to Dust here: