Xi Jinping Banned Art House Film

“Return to Dust” shows life in China’s poorest province. The censor board just waved the film off. She probably didn’t expect anyone to be interested in him.

Find love in an arranged marriage: Ā«Fourth BrotherĀ» (Renlin Wu) and Guiyang (Hai-Qing).


Even dictators don’t have it easy. He has to fear everything, the subversive element lurks everywhere. Last but not least in art, which is why there is a lot of censorship. Better to ban too much than too little, say those in power in China, for example. And let Hollywood movies that are not China-friendly enough for them be returned to sender.

Local production is also being put through their paces. But sometimes the censors miss something. They missed Li Ruijun’s “Return to Dust”. The production on paper probably seemed negligible. Because it’s a low-budget drama from the hinterlands, shot mainly with amateurs, a good two hours of gameplay; the plot unfolds calmly, the camera stays where it is. Chinese art judges probably thought so and waved at the work.

It cost nothing, brought in 14 million

Die-hard cinephile Carlo Chatrian of the Berlinale thanked him, showing “Return to Dust” in the main competition of the festival last February. No one from China protested. And it looked like the film would do what often happens to bulky festival films: it wouldn’t be seen anywhere else.

“Return to Dust” was different: Chinese cinemas came up with the film, the word somehow got out to the audience, and after nine weeks, the small production was suddenly number one in the ranking of Chinese cinema. It cost less than 300,000 francs and grossed nearly 14 million francs (over 100 million yuan). The drama seemed to hit a nerve. Frightened by the interest, the censor authorities made up for lost time and retroactively canceled the film, so to speak. It was also kicked off Chinese streaming services. But what is actually his problem?

Whoever saw the film saw something he was not supposed to see: the underdevelopment of the countryside. In northwest China’s Gansu Province (which is considered the poorest area in all of China), a man nicknamed “Fourth Brother” (Renlin Wu) is married to Guiyang (Hai-Qing). She is incontinent because she was beaten as a child; he owns nothing but a donkey. Beaten souls are slowly getting closer to each other.

Director Ruijun shows how the two have to leave their shack. Because the state wants to demolish unsightly houses; the home owner pocketed the demolition bonus. A couple is building a new home brick by brick. Life is hard and bad: eventually the wheat sprouts, then Guiyang develops a wheat allergy.

Bleeding farmer

But Ruijun does not torment the viewer with misery, he tenderly tells about a slowly developing love. It is a film of small gestures, social commentary you have to look for if not too far. When a rich merchant in the village urgently needs a blood donor, only the “fourth brother” has the right blood type: the film shows how the poor are bled to death.

Or you can see a husband and wife tilling a field and the “Fourth Brother” musing about the grain that “can only grow and get nowhere”, i.e. “carried away by the wind and burned by the sun”. And although you have legs yourself, you are “bound to our land.” After all, “what would a peasant live on without land”?

President Si doesn’t want to hear it. It promises prosperity through urbanization, poverty has been defeated. You shouldn’t see anything else, you can’t. At least not in China. Here it is. And anyone who can see a moving film should see it.

“Return to Dust” is in theaters.

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