Li Ruijun’s arthouse hit Return To Dust has been dropped from theatrical release and streaming platforms in China, without any reason being given to the producers or distributors of the film.
The move prompted discussion on Chinese social media as the film was a surprise box office hit, grossing more than $15m (RMB100m), an exceptional result for a specialist film in China, before it disappeared from view.
The film was released on July 8 and played relatively well for an arthouse title, before ironically receiving a $5.3m (RMB36.2m) boost over the September 2-4 weekend when it hit streaming platforms. It disappeared from release on September 26.
China’s film regulators don’t usually give reasons for their decisions to withdraw a title from release. It’s not unusual for a film to be pulled abruptly from screens to make way for newer titles, even if the film is still selling tickets. Last weekend, several new big films were released to coincide with China’s National Day holidays (October 1-7).
But it could also be the case that the film’s subject matter was seen as unsuitable or overly negative for release during the National Day holidays, which celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and in the run-up to the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on October 16, when Chinese president Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term.
Speaking off the record to Deadline, one box office analyst said: “The film appeared to have more potential box office as this weekend’s October holiday results suggest there was room in the market for counter programming. But note that there were so many films opening, it was also probably a convenient time to pull the film.”
Set in rural Gansu province, Return To Dust revolves around a middle-aged couple, encouraged to marry by their families who see them as a burden, and the love and respect that slowly grows between them as they scratch out a living of extreme hardship working the land. While Chinese actress Hai Qing, who plays the wife, is a relatively big star in China, the rest of the cast are non-professionals.
Director Li Ruijun, who grew up in rural Gansu, tried to make the film as realistic as possible by demanding that his cast and crew spend several months living in a remote town in the province. The film premiered at this year’s Berlin film festival and was later sold by German sales agent M-Appeal to dozens of territories.
During the film’s theatrical run, some viewers criticised it on social media for pandering to foreign film festivals and audiences with a negative portrayal of China. Many other comments praised the film for the powerful performance of the two lead actors and the simplicity and strength of its storytelling.
Chinese authorities don’t always shy away from admitting that there are parts of the country still living in extreme poverty, and some state media has even praised the film, which in Chinese has the literal title ‘Hidden In The Dust‘.
An article in China Daily said: “Hidden In The Dust is wonderful because it is real, and it is not destined to be hidden in the dust”, which of course prompted much mirth on social media when the film did indeed end up being hidden in the dust this past weekend.