Film Reviews
Photo from Return to Dust courtesy of Film Movement

By Diane Carson

Two Chinese films in Webster’s film series illustrate a range of approaches and individuals. First, director Na Jiazuo’s “Streetwise” finds rootless, twenty-one-year-old Sichuan resident Dongzi stumbling into mafia work as a debt collector. Aimless, he also slips into a fixation on his employer’s discontented wife. End credits state a  dedication “to all those who need comfort.”

It’s best to know this as the film begins since it offers context for a rambling story. With camerawork as uninhibited as Dongzi, in scenes punctuated by neon, “Streetwise” delivers intense alienation. By contrast, writer/director Li Ruijun’s “Return to Dust” beautifully conveys the dignity, morality, and evolving love of two middle-aged Chinese peasant in their inequitable, oppressive world. Forced into an arranged marriage by unsupportive families, Ma Youtie and Cao Guiying lack status. As a woman, Guiying suffers from her family’s beatings causing infertility, incontinence, and trembling hands while Youtie, the “fourth brother,” lacks value.

Set in rural Gansu bordering the Gobi Desert, as BMWs whiz by, Youtie and Guiying lead their beloved, hard-working donkey to plant, tend, and harvest wheat fields. Homes are demolished and built, chickens raised, swallows saved, and Youtie must repeatedly donate his rare blood. Quietly, calmly, they grow close in an exquisite, deeply moving union. Credit to veteran actor Hai-Qing as Guiying and real farmer Renlin Wu as Youtie. I fell in love with these two, their poignant goodness. Perfectly, Weihua Wang’s gorgeous cinematography respects their privacy through medium and long shot compositions.

After its opening weeks’ domestic success, China banned “Return to Dust” presumably for its negative, albeit entirely implicit, depiction of contemporary China, especially in the film’s concluding scenes. However, its heartbreaking and heartwarming empathy for these two captivating individuals leads me to already put it on my Top 10 List for 2023. 

With alternating dates, in Mandarin and the Chuan-Yu dialect with English subtitles, “Streetwise” screens Thursday, August 31, and Saturday, September 2; In Mandarin with English subtitles, “Return to Dust” screens Friday, September 1, and Sunday, September 3, both at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium at 7:30 each of those evenings. For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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