A man bullied for being the poorest in his village meets a woman rejected by her family for her disability. Acquainted through a marriage arranged by family members eager to get rid of them, the newlyweds find themselves right at the bottom of the social hierarchy—shunned by neighbors and even their own relatives. But their love story blossoms through shared suffering and simple joys, as the couple attempts to build a life for themselves in rural China.
Set in Gansu, a landlocked province in northwestern China, the film Return to Dust paints a tragic—and at times heartwarming—picture of struggling newlyweds Ma Youtie and Cao Guiying, captured through simple but compelling camera work by its director Li Ruijun. But with Chinese movie theaters increasingly dominated by epic tales of modern romance, rural love stories—or rural-themed films in general—have become a tough sell to the urban crowd.
In February, Return to Dust had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Bear, the highest prize awarded to the festival’s best film. Despite its critical acclaim, Return to Dust was met with a moderate response at the box office two months after its release in mainland Chinese theaters on July 8. But it later proved to be a massive sleeper hit, as word of mouth recommendations saw ticket sales snowball from late August. By the beginning of September, it had already raked in 50 million yuan ($7.1 million) from almost 1.5 million cinemagoers.
For Li, whose attention never left China’s fading rural villages, the film’s success is proof that any story, if told well, is still capable of capturing mainstream attention. Other movies he directed, like The Old Donkey, Fly with the Crane, and River Road, tackle similar themes and have received similar critical acclaim in international film festivals.
“This is a good sign,” he said about the success of Return to Dust. “Perhaps some viewers found a connection with their own relationships and life, and recommended the film to their friends.”
“This could dispel some stereotypes about certain films, especially about the popularity of certain genres.”
Poignant stories about rural China, at one point the country’s most visible genre to the world with films like Zhang Yimou classics Red Sorghum and The Road Home, have faded from domestic cinemas in recent years. As China quickens its pace of urbanization, its cinemas have also been stocked with stories about city dreams or big-budget CGI fantasy tales. Those about rural life, in comparison, appear a little too bland, unable to capture the imagination of cinemagoers.
Li thinks one of the main reasons why mainstream attention has moved away from rural-themed films is the stigma attached to rural life. With millions migrating to larger cities for work every year—one of the largest internal migrations in the world—many young people today are reluctant to admit that they hail from rural origins.
“When we were young, teachers told us to study hard. If we can’t make it into university we would have to farm. Farmers became synonymous with losers,” he said.
In Return to Dust, forgotten villagers like main characters Youtie and Guiying are the everyday people that Li chose to spotlight. A plot point in the film sees the government pushing towards national urbanization, awarding villagers subsidies for dismantling their old clay houses to make way for apartment buildings. Youtie and Guiying are forced out of their temporary home by its owner, who’s eager to claim his subsidy. But despite being eligible for relocation to a new apartment building, the couple reject an offer to move to the city—they simply couldn’t imagine how they could survive without farming. Without any skills besides being a self-sufficient farmer, Youtie feels that he has little chance of making money with a job in the city. Though it’s a fictional story, this is a reality for many in China.
“Some older villagers today have this problem. Younger people can migrate out of villages and begin new lives in the city, but older farmers don’t know how to do anything besides farming,” said Li. “While everyone is marching on the road to urbanization, [the couple] is left stagnating.”
As rural-themed films waned in popularity in recent years, understandings of rural life, especially among urban youth, have also become increasingly blurry—evident from contradicting critiques of Return to Dust. Some viewers commented that the village portrayed in the film was too clean to be true, though others argued that it was dirtier than what they imagined present-day villages to look like. Meanwhile, many had trouble believing that people like Youtie and Guiying actually exist—it may simply be too painful to come to terms with the fact that some people have lives as tragic as theirs.
Li thinks that these debates are beneficial in raising awareness about rural China today. And he remains committed to bringing more rural stories to the big screen. As someone who grew up in a village in Gansu, it was natural for Li to tell stories about his hometown.
“It’s precisely because people have stopped making rural films that I want to do it,” he said. “I was born and raised here. I am familiar with rural villages, and find it easy to relate to the experiences of those living there. Who is going to film it, if I don’t?”
“People should be able to see themselves on the big screen. All genres should exist in the market.”
In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.