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Return to Dust review – slow but movingly personal story of China’s rural poverty

A melancholy but loving couple scratch out a living in Ruijun Li's quiet study of finding meaning in a tough and repetitive life

Set in writer-director Ruijun Li’s home province of Gansu and starring mostly his own family and nearby villagers, Return to Dust – a deeply felt but glacially paced drama about grinding poverty in rural China – is clearly a very personal film. Li’s lived-in attachment to the material ends up as both help and hindrance, making for a slow, low-key story that is richly textured but also frustratingly indulgent, always taking the most scenic route possible through any given scene, testing your patience for occasional, but meaningful, rewards.

Pulled from cinemas and streaming in China shortly after its release, Return to Dust trains its sights on the banal corruptions and inadequacies of the Chinese state in a story of peasant farmers being bought out of their lands and homes to make way for some vague “redevelopment.” One of these homes belongs to Iron (Renlin Wu) and Cao (Hai-Qing), a couple brought together by a marriage arranged by their respective unempathetic siblings, each family desperate to get rid of what they view as their respective black sheep before pocketing the cash for their land.

Despite their sad initial circumstances, Iron and Cao do rather take to one another, united not just by their low statuses in their families and need to suddenly build themselves a new house, but also by their shared empathy – they’re the only people in the village to treat their animals with respect. Their kind and mild-mannered ways make them very easy to root for, and add layers of genuinely affecting tragedy to their plight, though having such passive protagonists does mean that you really feel the 130-minute or so runtime.

Return to Dust is an incredibly quiet film, taking time to soak in all the incidental details of the village. Though this does mean that nothing much happens for long stretches, it also allows for some wonderful moments of visual poetry as Li’s camera tracks the farm and building work, finding beauty in the labour, while the occasional bursts of more open emotion are properly impactful.

Whether it’s a tender moment between Iron and Cao, or Iron finally standing up for himself against his disinterested family, these moments are played with the same slow quietude found elsewhere in the film, but they gain power from this, granting Iron and Cao great dignity without shifting the tone. By the final third, the rest of the village have started to envy Iron and Cao’s connection and the joy they find in one another and their various animals, the slightly better material conditions enjoyed by the older siblings suddenly fading into irrelevance.

It takes a while to get here, but the triumph is well-earned, while the understated and naturalistic performances convincingly sell the rather sad and defeatist attitude of the village as a whole. Return to Dust will hardly thrill you and, for plenty of audiences, its slow amble through its story could simply prove dull but, if you let yourself sink into its rhythms, it rewards you with an earnest kindness that makes the whole journey worthwhile.

Return to Dust is now showing in UK cinemas.

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