Box Office Hit ‘Return to Dust’ Disappears From Chinese Theatres and Streaming Services

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A popular Chinese love-story movie was removed from all Chinese theatres and streaming services only weeks after its release.

The arthouse movie “Return to Dust,” with a budget of 2 million yuan (about $280,000), tells the story of a couple in an arranged marriage who live in a rural area of China’s northwestern Gansu Province. Against the odds, they gradually fall in love amid hardship and poverty. As their lives are gradually improving, the wife accidentally falls in a ditch and drowns. The movie ending hints that the husband later commits suicide.

The movie premiered at the Berlina International Film Festival in February this year and has been well received by critics internationally.

The China Film Administration issued a permit to screen the movie, which opened on July 8. It nabbed the top spot at the box office on Sept. 7, grossing over 100 million yuan (about $14 million).

However, the movie suddenly disappeared from Chinese theaters and streaming services on Sept. 26.

China experts believe the movie was banned because it depicts the true situation of rural life in China, and is considered a sensitive topic to show prior to the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress. The censors will not allow any film that has content the Party objects to.

Poverty Revealed

Written and directed by Chinese director Li Ruijun, the movie is set in a village in one of the poorest regions in the country.

The storyline is simple and realistic, and the characters are played by local farmers, except for actress Hai Qing who plays the female lead.

Ma Youtie, played by a local farmer and untrained actor Wu Renlin, is a poor farmer who has only an old donkey. He is hardworking and good at doing various jobs on the farm.

Ma’s harvest consists of 2,010 pounds of wheat and 8,811 pounds of corn, which he sells for 3974 yuan (about $557). He had to spend 1570 yuan (about $220) for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds. Thus, the family’s net income for the year is 2400 yuan (about $337).

Epoch Times Photo
Farmer Liu Qingyou at his residence in Baojing County, in central China’s Hunan Province on Jan. 12, 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)


The movie was sold to several European distributors and was well received abroad.

Deadline Hollywood praised Li Ruijun, the playwright and director of the movie, as “a significant cinematic talent.”

Jessica Kiang’s  Variety review says the movie is “absorbing” and “beautifully framed.”

At home, China’s online streaming platform Douban rated the movie 8.5 out of 10, the highest rating in 2022, according to Radio Free Asia in September. Comments about the movie posted on Douban’s website were largely positive.

One user wrote: “We need more films like this… This is one of the few outstanding films about farmers or people at the bottom of society in mainland China in recent years.”

Another user posted: “In the movie, nearly 11,000 pounds of grain can only be sold for more than three thousand yuan. After deducting the expenses, Ma earns only 2000 yuan for a year. This is not just a movie, but the real state of the countryside. For decades, the state owes the farmers the most.”

One person wrote: “There are 800 million people in China, who they [the communist authorities] called ‘comrades’ in the early years, ‘fellow villagers’ later, and ‘migrant workers’ recently. These people are in so low a profile that they only appear in the public once a year—as characters in sketches, poor fellows whose wages are paid—on the central television channel on Chinese New Year’s Eve. ”

One user wrote ironically that Chinese farmers should “hide themselves in the dust” as they are not inconspicuous enough, because “poverty in China has been eliminated.”

However, Party supporters publicly attacked the movie.

Zheng Yanshi, a researcher at a China thinktank Kunlunce, criticized the movie for smearing the ‘great achievements of poverty alleviation under the leadership of the [Chinese Communist] Party.’”

He asked the production team: “Who are you speaking for, and is your ass already sitting on the side of imperialism?”

Zheng then condemns the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) watchdog of movies and TV programs: “Those who are responsible for the censorship and gatekeeping, how did you assess such a bad and filthy movie?”

Epoch Times Photo
The Chinese regime has mandated that all computers sold in China must come with pre-installed censorship software. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

In China, all movies and TV series must be submitted to the State Film Administration for its approval. It issues a permit for screening after it makes a judgment that the assessed work meet all its propaganda requirements.

A social media influencer by the username “Alfa World Observation” says in his post that the movie depicts the poverty and backwardness in China’s rural areas to “bring extremely bad negative influence to overseas Chinese all over the world” and to “extremely smear China’s image.” He labels movies of this kind as “poisonous.”

CCP Doesn’t Like Truth to Be Revealed: China Experts

China experts believe the sudden disappearance of the movie shows that the CCP maintains strict control over the contents of movies and TV series.

Lin Song, a media professional based in Australia, told the Chinese language edition of The Epoch Times on Sept. 27 that the CCP doesn’t permit Chinese people to say anything at odds with the CCP’s propaganda.

“You are not allowed to disclose the true dark side of the rural areas in China. If you do so, you are anti-CCP,” Lin said, adding this is the reason the movie was removed before the national party congress later this month.

In a phone interview with The Epoch Times on Sept. 27, Li Yuanhua, former associate professor of Capital Normal University in Beijing, said “The movie gets a high rating on Douban because it tells the truth about rural life in China.”

“There are still many Chinese people living under the poverty line, even though the CCP advocates that it has eliminated poverty in China. In fact, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in 2020 that over 600 million people earned about 1000 yuan ($140) per month,” Li said.

Ning Haizhong and Luo Ya contributed to the article.

Sophia Lam


Sophia Lam joined The Epoch Times in 2021 and covers China-related topics.

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