Tiff reviews – Return to dust

return to dust
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“Return to dust” is a Chinese Drama published this year by Li Ruijun. So far, it’s a success. The film has made 100 million yuan (15 million Euro), on a budget of 2 million yuan since the world premiere at the “Berlinale” in February.

The movie’s plot focuses on Youtie Ma (Wu Renlin) and Guiying Cao (Hai Qing), the movie’s protagonists. Both are forced into an arranged marriage even though they don’t know each other. And suddenly, they are the only people left alone with one another, having to build their life together. Ma and Cao develop a very intimate relationship throughout the movie and create their new lives.

The character of Ma is versatile. You meet him as a man his family doesn’t appreciate and seems quite introverted. Still, he turns out to be a kindhearted person who is very empathetic with others. For instance, he gives his donkey food and pets or feeds the chicken with soup. One time he frees birds before bulldozers can destroy their home. He also behaves gently with Ma; he asks her if she’s ok or takes care of her while she is ill. In addition to that, he’s hard-working but doesn’t complain a lot or pity himself.


The other protagonist, Cao, is a woman her family also rejects. She has a disability by walking, is infertile and doesn’t talk a lot. Still, she always tries to help and is talented in handicrafts. She values Ma for his empathy and expresses her happiness to be with him as a husband.

At first, I felt insecure watching such an advanced film. There is only a little dialogue, background information and no further explanation of the additional circumstances. However, the plot develops piece by piece. Li Ruijun doesn’t use dramatic camera settings or special effects to exaggerate the events.
Before watching “return to dust”, I didn’t think these exact characteristics would help make a movie more interesting to me. But, surprisingly, simplicity is the key to the intensity of the drama.


I usually consume films where characters and relationships develop very fast. The relationship between Ma and Cao shows a more complex, in some way less enjoyable process of two people falling in love. However, by portraying the protagonists as imperfect, flawed people, Li Ruijun evoked strong empathy for Ma and Cao in me. I was astonished by the acting of Hai Qing (Cao) and Wu Renlin (Ma). With a movie like “return to dust”, Qing and Renlin were under immense pressure to perform, considering how the plot focuses on their roles. And they carried the Pain but also small moments of happiness in a way that felt almost too close. I felt like I knew these two People, even though they didn’t exist in real life.


Besides the love drama, society’s criticism is an essential part of the piece. The viewer accompanies two people that live in a cloven society. There is the simple, quiet farm life on the one side and the fast, loud, further developed part on the other. A very subtle nuance shows how Li Ruijn thinks about both sides. The screen shows warm colours when Ma and Cao are in the village. However, you see cool tones and constant buzz when they visit the area outside.
Therefore the outside world is a predator. Bulldozers are comparable with executors to destroy dwellings and nature. Besides, the film shows a different kind of view on a simpler life. With the few things they have, Cao and Ma seem to be happy. Whether on the other side, people that already have more belongings aren’t happy with what they have and want more.


Even though Ma and Cao are happy, it is simultaneously an indirect criticism of those in power. Ma works hard and is an honest Man. Still the buyers of his goods betray him because of money. Furthermore he has to to donate his blood for the chief’s disease and gets nothing in return.
Accordingly one could have different opinions on which is the essence of the film. Nevertheless, all these understandings have their right because this drama leaves space and supports people in forming their interpretations.

I recommend everyone to watch this movie, even if you are like me and only consume a few more simple artistic styles of film. It doesn’t try to hide the reality and has an important message to transfer. Therefore don’t be afraid your going to be bored by this movie. No matter what you take away from “Return to dust”, it will not leave you untouched.

Post Author: Elena Leiterer

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