Return to Dust movie review & film summary (2023)

Return to Dust movie review

by ihsan
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Young filmmaker Li Ruijun, who is around 40 years old, exudes the aura of someone much older. His most recent movie, “Return to Dust,” has landed him in hot water with the Chinese government, won accolades at the Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for a Silver Bear. It is now making its way to the United States without the changes that were allegedly made to the movie in China to make its outlook on the world more optimistic.

This movie’s every frame has been meticulously thought out without coming off as fussy or stagy. Perhaps it helps that the movie is about modest people in modest circumstances. Li can elegantly present them without glamorizing destitution. One can disagree with Elia Kazan’s evaluation of himself in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” but one can also see why his own judgment would have troubled him. In any event, Li can compose superbly without aestheticizing because to his directing chops.

“Return to Dust” is a story that is virtually as straightforward as its title, and it is set in the rural Chinese province of Gansu. Ma Youtie, a small-time farmer with only a donkey to his name, is forced into a kind of forced union with Cao Guiyung. Although this pair appears to be getting close to middle age, their level of energy is actually high-senior. They both struggle in social situations, and Cao’s incontinence only becomes apparent at the most inconvenient times. Evidently, Gansu does not use adult diapers.

So certainly, this image has you covered if you’re searching for some effective “counterprogramming” against “Barbie” over the weekend. But in all seriousness, performers Wu Renlin and Hai Qing, playing Ma and Cao, respectively, portray their roles as though they were peeling onions. While working on Ma’s estate, they become less formal and stiff toward one another. They have a lot of work and difficulty to share, but not much to talk about. Their evenings are peaceful. One evening, Cao notices that the old bottles in the eaves are muttering once more. Small poetic flourishes from the director and his main characters abound in “Return to Dust”.

This, of course, was the subject of many images from the not-quite-movement known as Italian neo-realism. Economically and emotionally marginalized people are shuffled to and fro by a society that is largely indifferent, if not outright hostile to them, and find some comfort and solace in each other while weathering the blows they are required to take until the blows stop (they typically don’t), or the ones getting the blows give out. “Return to Dust” is more like those movies than it is with traditional American representations of squalor like “The Grapes of Wrath.” But by refraining from overtly trying to touch the hearts of the audience, the director completely strays from Western convention. There is no music playing. Close-up shots and overtly deceptive montages are not used in the movie.

Greater forces get to work once Ma and Cao have successfully constructed a new home for themselves. The Chinese authorities evidently became anxious at this point. Ma and Cao have submitted an application to relocate into an apartment complex through an agent for the province. I asked myself, “Where will I put my chickens?” Ma innocently asks. The couple is joined by a TV team as they tour their new residence. Though not in the sense that the would-be hype squad would prefer, the marrieds are essentially mute. so forth.Li doesn’t make the bureaucrats who disrupt his main characters’ lives into villains, but he doesn’t need to—all he needs to do is demonstrate how their attempts to “improve” life wind up backfiring. The Chinese authorities thereupon added a title card with a fictitious plot summary to the film. Here is the director’s original finale, a subtly expressed emotion of tremendous disappointment.

Now available in cinemas .

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