The hit film Return to Dust has disappeared from Chinese cinemas. Why?

What you are reading now should have been an interview with Li Ruijun. The acclaimed Chinese director has a beautiful new film coming out in the UK, back to dust, a hard and tender love story between a couple of peasants in the province of Gansu, near the Mongolian border. The Financial Times had long planned to tell Li about it. Instead, it fell to Eve Gabereau of UK distributor Modern Films to fill in the space left by Li and her producers. “They don’t talk,” she said. “But they don’t say why not either.”

That’s a shame. There is a lot to discuss. Film quality aside, a conversation would explore how a low-budget arthouse film became a deeply unlikely commercial success, topping the Chinese box office ahead of various blockbusters. But there would also be the equally bizarre and much sadder story of how it disappeared from cinemas. Seemingly banned simply to shine a light on the hard lives of the rural poor, the dormant hit comes across as a snapshot of an airless political climate – and a symbol of art’s vulnerability.

You could start both stories in February, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival. Li, 39, had already made a name for himself in the arthouse scene with five previous films, but back to dust suggested a breakthrough. Filmed in her home county of Gaotai, it starred beloved actress Hai Qing as a middle-aged disabled bachelor. The rest of the cast were non-professionals, including Wu Renlin as a sturdy farmer married to her in a marriage arranged by their families. With lyrical realism bringing the growing bond between the two to life, critics were impressed.

Wu Renlin and Hai Qing play as a couple in an arranged marriage and form a growing bond

Western distributors too. Besides the respected Modern, deals were soon signed with companies across Europe and North America. (A U.S. release is pending.) Gabereau hoped the film would become China’s nominee for the 2023 Best International Feature Film Oscar. Plans have been made for a fall release, with Li to undertake interviews with the press. Although Chinese pandemic regulations prevented him from traveling to Germany, he spoke to reporters remotely to support the screening in Berlin.

In China, all this hardly registered. A national release took place in July. Xiaoning Lu from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London is a film scholar with a long specialization in Chinese cinema. “At first,” she said,back to dust hardly attracts attention. An auteur film on the poverty of rural peasants? Honestly, neither the government nor the general Chinese public would normally care.

But then came several fateful vagaries of timing. During the summer, an online short film, second uncle, became a Chinese viral hit, telling the story of a kind rural carpenter. On social networks, the unknown back to dust was offered as a companion piece. From these small acorns was born the success of word-of-mouth. Week after week, the film built an audience.

The director holds a microphone with 'Oscar' written on it as he addresses the conference
Li Ruijun at a press conference for “Return to Dust” in Zhengzhou in early September © VCG via Getty Images

Finally, in the first weekend of September, it became the most successful film in Chinese cinemas. The original budget would have been 2 million Rmb (around £245,000). On September 9, the government-published Beijing Review reported a national box office gross of over Rmb 100 million.

For Gabereau, the unexpected good news fueled his optimism. He also made an upbeat story for the Chinese film, which a fortnight earlier had received sardonic coverage in Western media when the children’s animation Minions: The Rise of Gru received a healthy postscript by government censors.

However, the idyll will not last. Two weeks after becoming the most popular film in China, back to dust disappeared without warning from theaters across the country. The streaming sites on which it had also been streamed no longer carried it either.

No explanation was provided. Indeed, it was never officially confirmed that the film was banned. But since then it has remained impossible to see legally in China. Amid an online outcry, a hashtag related to the film was briefly disabled on social media platform Weibo. (Episode critical comments are visible again.)

The lack of clarity could be read as deliberate. But the sudden and public suppression of such a high-profile success story may also have reflected authorities’ confusion over when and how to align the films with Chinese power. “back to dust was a victim of its own success,” Lu says. “If it hadn’t won such a large audience, it wouldn’t have caught the attention of the government either.”

Inside the lobby of a multiplex in Shenyang, Liaoning province, with movie posters, crowds and a food counter
Li Ruijun’s sensitive arthouse film has proven more popular than many seasonal blockbusters in Chinese cinemas © VCG via Getty Images

Gabereau was told that the film divided opinion among bureaucrats at China’s National Film Administration. “When I saw it in Berlin,” she says, “it didn’t even occur to me that it would be considered a criticism of the government.” Just a week before the film was withdrawn, the Beijing Review hailed it as an example of cultural diversity in Chinese cinema. It was, according to one industry figure, a “story capable of creating emotional resonance through the ages”.

Lu blames it on an unfortunate set of circumstances. “On the one hand, the film became popular at a time when zero-Covid caused enormous suffering. That’s part of why the public tuned into it. But it also made that popularity noticeable.

More generally, the portrait of a couple of peasants preferring to live in rural isolation rather than a new apartment could cause trouble. In this, dissident artist Ai Weiwei sees censorship as predictable. “Films that depict the real life, struggle and feelings of farmers,” he says, “are frowned upon because they don’t fit the political agenda of poverty reduction.”

Posters fade on the facade of an Evergrande Cinemas building, with high-rise buildings in the background
A cinema complex run by struggling developer Evergrande. A portrayal of rural life may have run counter to party dogma on poverty reduction © Alamy

Crucially, too, the film’s late summer success coincided with preparations for the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress last week. In the resulting feverish atmosphere, it’s not hard to imagine the unease among those responsible for the country’s most popular film as a melancholic burst of social realism – a far cry from the “positive energy” championed by the President Xi Jinping.

Gabereau soon received word from an intermediary of back to dust‘s Chinese producers. All UK festival screenings should now clearly state that they have not been approved by the team in China. Also, the names of the producers were not to be used. It was also clarified that Li himself would no longer be available for an interview. He was busy with other projects, Gabereau was told.

Gabereau knows things must be tough for Li now. “He obviously wants to continue living and working there,” she says. Still, the story of the film’s treatment has been seized by Chinese hawks. And back to dust is not the only film to have encountered such problems, even if it hardly seems overtly subversive.

A close up of a young girl looking between metal bars

A scene from ‘Confetti’, by Chinese-American filmmaker Ann Hu

Hu, in a black dress, speaks to the media

Director Ann Hu says the atmosphere in China has changed recently © Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Dada Films

Recently released in UK cinemas, Confetti was directed by Chinese-American director Ann Hu. In the 2000s, Hu made two Chinese box office hits, Shadow Magic and The beauty remains. (Shadow Magic also won best co-production film at the Golden Roosters, the national equivalent of the Oscars.) While living in China, she discovered that her young daughter had dyslexia, a condition under-recognized in the national education system. Settling in America to find a solution, this experience is now the subject of his new film. He calls on China to improve awareness of childhood dyslexia – but is also candid about the pitfalls of American schools. And Hu remained connected enough to film in China and prepare for a wide theatrical release there.

This does not happen. “Between making the film and trying to release it, the atmosphere changed,” Hu says. One-off screenings took place in Beijing, Changchun and Guangzhou, but plans to broadcast to 3,000 Chinese screens proved unfeasible, despite partnering with established local distributors. Covid was a factor. Hu says the restrictions have also become a convenient obstacle. “The feeling was that this movie doesn’t belong here.”

She is aware that her success in the 2000s now belongs to another time. “By then, China had matured into opening up,” she said. “Now there is no room to breathe.”

The director behind the camera wearing a red scarf

Ann Hu on the set of her film ‘Beauty Remains’, a box office success in China in 2005 © Emerging Pictures/Alamy

A woman holds a brass tube to her eye as her companion guides her

Yufei Xing and Yu Xia in Ann Hu’s “Shadow Magic” (2000) © Fu Xiang Ping/Shutterstock

Gabereau, too, speaks nostalgically of a time when the release of world cinema did not imply the silence of directors. “We are always open to distributing Chinese films. But this situation makes us fear for the creative expression of Chinese filmmakers.

The heart of the story would seem to be the priorities of the CCP. At one point, Western acclaim for a film like back to dust would have been considered a precious commodity, a global soft power in action. Today, these benefits seem irrelevant – or outweighed by the demands of domestic order. Despite all the attention at last week’s congress, Lu says the role of filmmakers in China remains unchanged since Xi spoke of the duty of culture in 2014. The message then – of the need to convey brilliant national progress – has only grown.

“The party awaits a lot of artists,” she says.

‘Return to Dust’ is out November 4th in the UK,

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