We are accustomed to stories of love and marriage. We almost always think about those two things in that order: first love, then marriage. Return to Dust, from writer/director Li Ruijun, gives us an alternative to the relationship of those two concepts.
In rural China, Ma Youtie is paired with Cao Guiying in a marriage of two people whose families have given up on them. Usually referred to as “Fourth Brother”, Youtie’s name means “Iron” (as opposed to two older brothers, “Gold” and “Silver”). He is unassuming and undemanding and just goes through life knowing that he is at the bottom of all priorities. Guiying is slightly disabled, cannot control her bladder, and unable to have children. When speaking of the upcoming marriage, it’s noted, “who else would marry her”, which speaks disparagingly of them both. Their wedding photograph has the two sitting side by side, looking away from each other. Neither has any hint of joy—or any other emotion.
They begin their life together with next to nothing—and even that is taken away from them by a renewal program that tears down their house. They rebuild from scratch—even making their own bricks. As they work the fields and build their new house, we see that the building is a visible manifestation of the life they are building together. As they strive together, we see a bond and touching love develop between them.
We also see that their life together is bound to the rhythms of the natural world. As the years past, we see swallows returning to nest on the side of their home. They even take care to preserve the nest that was on the wall when the original home was destroyed. They see the swallows as being displaced and discounted just as they have been.
Iron and Guiying never have a passionate life, but they find in each other a place of belonging. While we often think in terms of love and marriage being the order of things, we may come to realize that, even in that way of viewing things, love blooms in new ways as time passes. What may have begun with passion may settle into more mundane routines. All couples will face stormy times (as this couple faces real storms) that must be dealt with. Through it all, marriage is really a time of building and planting a future.
Return to Dust is in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement.