A later-life love story of the gentlest kind, Li Ruijun’s “Return to Dust” is an absorbing, beautifully framed drama that makes a virtue — possibly too much a virtue — of simplicity. The story is straightforward: Two lonely middle-aged people, each barely tolerated by their more worldly family members, are pushed into an arranged marriage, which quietly blossoms into a companionable love match. The lead characters are simple, or are believed to be by their scornful neighbors, as they pursue a punishingly traditional farming lifestyle with only a long-suffering donkey to lighten the backbreaking load. Crops grow, seasons turn and anything too biting or topical or politically charged, the film simply avoids.
Li’s sixth feature unfolds in a small village in Gaotai (the director’s home region), which is being whittled away as its inhabitants move to the cities for work. The towering sand dunes nearby provide an evocatively dusty metaphor for what the future holds: Due to a government edict encouraging the demolition of uninhabited structures, dwellings are worth more to their absent owners as piles of rubble. This is a worry for Youtie Ma (Wu Renlin) and his new wife Guiying Cao (Hai Qing) as upon their marriage, briskly arranged by family members no longer willing to support them, they move into one of those empty houses only to have to relocate to another when the municipal bulldozers show up.
Middle-aged Ma is first shown sharing his meal with his donkey while his relatives discuss his upcoming nuptials. Cao, who suffers from incontinence and a painful limp and is more taciturn even than Ma, later confesses that seeing him treat the animal with kindness was when she realized that marriage to him might be preferable to her current misery. “That donkey had a better life than me,” she states, so evenly it doesn’t feel like self-pity.
Indeed this pair are possibly the least self-pitying people on earth. Yoked together without much say in the matter, they quickly get to work on their small patch of land. The almost procedural interest Li has in the farming process provides some of the film’s most oddly mesemerizing sequences: Cao, sitting on the plow so that the plowshare bites deeper under her weight; Ma laying out mud bricks in a spiral to dry, or hand-scything wheat at harvest time. These scenes are also elevated by DP Wang Weihua’s camerwork, which finds grace and dignity in hard work, without overly romancing it. Exteriors are wide, with the couple often dwarfed by the natural world, interiors are warm despite their shabbiness. When Ma fashions an incubator for chicks from a cardboard box, the speckled, mirrorball effect of the light spilling out is subtly magical, cues picked up in the lovely score from Peyman Yazdanian.
The poignancy of their burgeoning relationship is the film’s patiently ticking driving force. Cao waits for Ma to return from town on a freezing night, clutching a flask of hot tea for him, and returning several times to the house to reheat it when Ma is late. When he finally shows up, it is a subtle turning point in their relationship: Neither seems able to believe their luck at the gift they have found in the other. There is a broad supporting cast of siblings and uncles and a catty Greek chorus of villagers gossiping at a crossroads, but the film is really a two-hander, and both Wu Renlin and Hai Qing are completely at one with their heroically decent characters.
But it’s a heroism based on a discomfiting level of self-sacrifice, of turning the other cheek and accepting without complaint the meager scraps from someone else’s banquet. Ma has the same rare blood type as an ailing local landlord-boss, and regularly gives pints of blood to help him: He’s literally being bled dry by the big guy. Cao works her frail body to its limits, often electing to walk rather than ride the cart to avoid overloading the donkey. “You were used by others for most of your life, haven’t you had enough?” Ma asks the unbudging animal when he finally decides to remove its ever-tinkling bell and set it free. But he could be talking about the conditioning he and Cao have undergone to believe that this hard, thankless life is all they could ever deserve.
As a portrait of the dying end of a traditional way of life and the rapid decimation of China’s outlying rural communities, “Return to Dust” is potent, often poetic in its encroaching-dustbowl imagery. As a meditation on the rewards of later-life companionship, it is elegiac, blessed with two unusually sympathetic, restrained performances. But the movie’s warm heart distracts from the absence of fire in its belly: Where is the anger at the injustice of any society demanding so much from people who ask from it so little? At one point, as they tend to their first crop, Cao cradles a lone green shoot that has been uprooted and looks to Ma in distress. “Don’t worry,” Ma says, in sage mode, “If a seedling dies, it nourishes the soil, so other things can grow.” That is true, of course, but it is pretty cold comfort for the seedling.