The film “Return to Dust,” which tells the story of a man and a woman living in poverty in China, was removed without warning from cinemas and streaming platforms in the country. Nevertheless, the film received international critical acclaim and competed in film festivals like the Berlin Film Festival.
Several Chinese streaming platforms do not know what happened. Overnight the film “Return to Dust” was removed entirely from the internet. Strikingly some comments on social media about the film’s censorship are still online and have not yet been removed.
According to SCMP, Wang Tianye, manager of Aranya, the film’s production company, said he did not receive any prior notice or official notification from the regime. “We haven’t received the official document [to block the film], and we don’t understand the reason. … So we hope the film [“Return to Dust”] will return to the public as soon as possible,” he added.
The film hit streaming platforms in August, including Tencent, Youqu, and Iqiyi. Directed by Li Ruijun, “Return to Dust” had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, arrived in China in July, and quickly surpassed $15 million in returns within three months of its theatrical release.
“Return to Dust” portrays the story of a middle-aged peasant man, Ma Youtie, and a woman, Cao Guiying, who is ostracized from the community because of her disability. The woman’s family urgently wants to marry her off, and they find in Ma Youtie the candidate they were hoping for. Unfortunately, the woman, Cao, has severe health problems and cannot have children.
The film shows the difficulties faced by the couple to survive in a rural village in Gansu province that is going through the changes of urban modernization. Poverty and the bond between the two are the central themes. The newlywed couple is forced to sell their humble house to be demolished and deals with the village mobsters in an unconventional exchange.
“We rarely see rural lives on screens, so I wanted to make a film about this community, their emotions, their lives,” said the film’s director, Li Ruijun. “I want their story to be known to the world.” The film was distributed in several countries in Europe.
After the film disappeared from Chinese theaters and streaming platforms, Chinese netizens expressed their opinions, “‘Return to Dust’ is turning to dust,” they commented.
Recently, the film was at the center of debate on Chinese social media, with some netizens commenting that the director wanted to “idealize poverty” or that he intended to create a “false and ugly image” of China to “win awards in the West.”
Others praised the director’s courage in showing the reality of rural poverty in China and that this could be the main reason why the communist regime removed the film from theaters and the internet.
Some Twitter users reported that the film’s hashtag was removed from Weibo, a Chinese social network similar to Twitter (Twitter is banned in China).
Communist regime tightens censorship
Several Chinese and Western films were censored in the country by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The National Administration of Radio and Television is primarily responsible for content control and censorship mandates.
In 2020, this entity ordered the censorship of all content containing miracles, healing, holy relics, or demonic possessions. In an interview with a Catholic media, a Chinese filmmaker said, “if we film the life of Jesus, avoiding the content prohibited by the new restrictions, we will only present Jesus as an ordinary person, and this is unacceptable for Christians.”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a film by renowned director Quentin Tarantino and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, also fell foul of the CCP’s censorship. Days before its release in China, the CCP censors suspended the film’s screening in all theaters in the country if it was not re-edited according to their conditions. Tarantino refused the regime’s request.
Another recent censorship was the film Doctor Strange 2 (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), released in May this year. The Chinese authorities have not provided information on the causes of the censorship. However, some specialized media commented that one of the reasons could be a scene in the movie where a typical New York City newspaper vendor is seen. This newsstand bears the Chinese characters of Da Ji Yuan, an international multi-language newspaper and media outlet that reports uncensored news from China and has denounced many crimes committed by the CCP.
The main objective of Chinese censorship is to promote the single-mindedness of the CCP and to prohibit the circulation of Western ideals such as freedom, belief in God, free speech, and others.
In addition, no criticism of the CCP or its leaders is tolerated. In Chinese social networks, people’s behavior is homogeneous and almost robotic. Therefore, if there is any criticism, it must be “limited” and superficial, without any “element” questioning the regime.
In this sense, with the recent censorship of the movie “Return to Dust,” several questions arise. First, was the movie censored because it shows poverty in China, which contradicts one of Xi Jinping’s statements? In 2021, Xi announced a “comprehensive victory” in the fight against poverty, calling it another “human miracle” under his rule.
Moreover, the 20th Party Congress will soon be held, a political event that will decide Xi Jinping’s future. Therefore, demonstrations of social discontent and the reality of rural life and poverty in China are not convenient to maintain “the good image” of the regime.