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Wu Renlin (left) and Hai Qing in a still from Return to Dust. The film has vanished from Chinese cinemas and streaming platforms. Photo: Hucheng No.7 Films Ltd

Chinese film Return to Dust disappears from cinemas and the internet, despite US$14 million ticket sales, and no one knows why

  • No reason has been given for the disappearance of Return to Dust from cinemas and the internet. ‘Return to Dust is returning to dust,’ internet users quip
  • The film, which depicts the hardships of life in rural China, premiered to critical acclaim at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival in February

This article contains spoilers.

A film depicting the lives of impoverished peasants in China has disappeared from the country’s cinemas and internet, despite earning more than 100 million yuan (US$14 million) at the box office.

Return to Dust, directed by Chinese filmmaker Li Ruijun, was withdrawn from cinemas on September 26 and dropped from all streaming platforms in the country with little fanfare. Discussion about the film has not been prohibited on social media, however.

The film examines the impact of the country’s economic growth and rapid urbanisation through the lives of a downtrodden couple in a rural village in Gansu province in the northwest.

Ma Youtie (played by Wu Renlin), a poor middle-aged man, is introduced to Cao Guiying (Hai Qing). She is excluded by their community because of her disabilities. Despite the hardships they have endured, romance grows between the two.

Spoiler alert. Eventually, their intimate utopia collapses when Cao accidentally drowns. A postscript at the end, not shown when the film was screened in Berlin, added after the camera sweeps past a bottle of pesticide that seems to suggest Ma has committed suicide, reads: “In the winter of 2011, Ma Youtie moved to a new home and lived a new life with the help of the government and enthusiastic villagers.” End of spoiler.

‘Love and life’ the themes of Return to Dust, its Chinese director says

Return to Dust is returning to dust,” some Chinese internet users wrote in response to the ban. No official announcement has been made despite the online backlash.

“We did not receive the official document [to block the film], and we do not understand the reason for it,” Wang Tianye, general manager of Aranya, one of the film’s producers, says. “So we hope that the movie [Return to Dust] will be back to the public as soon as possible.”

A source told the Post that they had received a notice suggesting their media company not associate the film with “foreign film festival awards”, but they described the notice as “moderate”. It did not seem to convey an intention to ban the film, the source added.

Li Ruijun is the director of Return to Dust. Photo: China Film Directors’ Guild
Li’s film has been one of the most successful Chinese productions this year, commercially and artistically, and premiered to critical acclaim at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It was the only Chinese film in the running for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear Award.

Return to Dust ran into trouble after its premiere in Berlin. Its release – originally scheduled for February 25 – was delayed until July 8, whereupon the low-budget film, made at a cost of two million yuan, earned 100 million yuan at the box office in 62 days.

Nevertheless, its portrayal of the country’s urban-rural divide and the behaviour of people in power has sparked controversy on the internet.

Hai Qing (left) and Wu Renlin in a still from Return to Dust. Photo: Hucheng No.7 Films Ltd
In 2021, China announced that it had put an end to “absolute poverty”, realising the government’s goal of building a “moderately prosperous society”. Next month, the Communist Party will hold its 20th congress – a pivotal political event that is expected to mark the start of President Xi Jinping’s third term as the party’s leader.

Zheng Yanshi, a critic from Chinese news site Kunlunce, said though Li emphasised his story was rooted in reality, the government was working to alleviate poverty. “In this way, we can’t help but wonder what kind of intention was used to create such a film,” Zheng said.

However, Dai Jinhua, a professor at Beijing-based Peking University, said: “One of the strong features of Return to Dust is ‘giving humanity’, which allows us to see the people who live like air, the people who may be stoned by children, scorned or laughed at by adults.”

“I think this signal is very unfriendly to the creative environment, especially for directors like me who are concerned about the underclass. [We] feel a bit discouraged,” says Zhang Xiaosha, a Chinese filmmaker, of the film’s disappearance from public view.

“I’ve actually been very pessimistic about the filmmaking environment in recent years, and more so since Return to Dust was banned a few days ago.”

Hai Qing (left) and Wu Renlin in a still from Return to Dust. Photo: Hucheng No.7 Films Ltd

The Post has contacted Chinese streaming platform Iqiyi for comment. At the time of writing, it has not received a response.

Chinese cinema has had a mixed year on the international stage.

Other than Return to Dust, no Chinese films were selected to screen in competition at the world’s three most prestigious festivals – the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and the Berlin festival – this year. A Woman, directed by Wang Chao, won the best screenplay award at San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain this week.

Return to Dust has already been censored and then approved for the audience. It’s a very ‘normal’ film in all aspects – but finally it was banned,” Zhang said.

“We have not seen a single document, nor any media reports on the possible impact that the film might have on its audiences,” he added. “If you are going to [ban a film], let’s tell people its crime, right?”

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