Love stories being something of a tired genre their formula has become a joke in of itself. The ‘meet cute’ the ‘honeymoon period’, the third act breakup and the characters reunion all of it is so predictable that it takes a special kind of love story or tale of romance for me to find it interesting at all to sit through. Luckily their are still many filmmakers who can breathe new life into film and the Melbourne International Film Festival has opened up opportunities to see many of these interesting films.

Return to Dust is the story of two outcasts living in Gansu province of northern China who are pushed together and the bond which forms between them. A simple unassuming farmer Ma (Wu Relin) and the extremely shy and physically disabled from years of abuse Guiying (Hai Quing) are placed in a loveless arranged marriage as a means to unburden their respective families. Together in abject poverty they toil the land of Ma’s farm in order to make ends meet while the world itself seems to conspire against them. With nobody to help except for Ma’s donkey in the face of adversity the two grow to love one another and find the strength to build a life for themselves.

Himself hailing from the town of Gaotai where this film is set Director Li Ruijin’s work often focuses on the rural lifestyle and how the characters influence their land and vice versa. This film in particular features many extensive shots of its characters toiling in fields, building their houses, and breaking their backs from dawn to dusk. In the same way the Australian film Buoyancy showed a brief but harrowing glimpse into life upon a fishing trawlier this movie presents a way of life many of us would completely overlook.

Cinematographer Weihua Wang does an amazing job of making this lifestyle picturesque but at the same time not in an over the top way. This is a story about a man and wife as throughout the seasons they grow closer together in the blistering sun and the freezing cold. There are some beautiful shots in this movie but we never feel that the couple are insignificants in the grand scheme of things rather their day to day existence is portrayed up close and while on paper one might expect the film to be boring as a result its incredible how engrossed I became in their journey.

There’s actually little dialogue in this film overall. Ma and Guiying spend most of the first act being spoken for by others more than anything. Guiying in particular as is her character being someone who was abused to such an extent says nothing at all for what feels like half an hour of screen time. I recently had the pleasure of watching Dante Lam’s action epic Operation Red Sea, in that movie Hai Quing played an outspoken journalist who goes toe to toe with navy special forces while she fighs to prevent WMDs from falling into the hands of terrorists. Put simply she could not have been any more unrecognisable in this film from what I was used to and it was truly something seeing her transform and becoming more confident and opening up to her husband as time went on.

Not to be outdone Wu Relin delivers a wholesome leading man performance as Ma. As someone who hasn’t had many acting roles in the past he largely carries this film as it is his fascinating outlook on the world and how “this is this, that is that” basically “whatever will be will be”. He is content with his place in the world and he shows a distinct masculinity as he protects and cares for his wife in the face of a cruel world.

While I dare not delve too deeply into the overall story lest I spoil it for others, I did find myself a little let down by how melancholy the movie left me. Suffice to say I may be a big softy but I found Return to Dust an extremely beautiful filmgoing experience overall however I dont believe Li Ruijin had to take us to the place he did as the ultimate destination of the story.

Review by Kyle McGrath