A low-budget film depicting the struggle of a poor couple in rural China surprised many with a run at the Chinese box office that eclipsed some blockbusters. Now many are wondering why they can’t watch it.
“Return to Dust” features two outcasts, a woman with a physical disability and a farmer too poor to marry, who reunite in a marriage arranged by their families. With a realistic style, Li Ruijun, the director, recounts the hardships they face.
The film, which mostly features residents of the western province of Gansu rather than professional actors, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and began showing in China in July. It quickly made its way onto social media. In early September, daily ticket revenue exceeded 10 million yuan ($1.4 million), surpassing big-budget films such as “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”
“Return to Dust” was so popular that theater rights to screen it were extended twice, most recently until September 30.
Mid-September, however, something happened. In a sign that cinemas had stopped showing the film earlier than expected, ticket sales fell to near zero on September 13, according to data from leading Chinese cinema ticketing app Maoyan.com.
Later that month, social media users began noticing that the film was no longer available on major streaming platforms which had been streaming it for weeks.
The film’s disappearance came just before a two-decade Communist Party congress in mid-October, at which President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term in office.
Hashtags about the film and its removal on social media platform Weibo became clickable, a sign that the discussion was considered sensitive. A few blog posts about the Chinese all-purpose app, WeChat,
who asked why the movie was deleted online also disappeared.
Weibo did not respond to a request for comment. iQIYI and Huawei Technologies Co., which operate major streaming platforms, did not respond to requests for comment. Tencent Holdings Ltd., owner of Tencent Video and WeChat, also did not respond to requests for comment.
The National Radio and Television Administration of China, the country’s broadcasting authority, did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Xi has made poverty eradication a flagship initiative of his reign. Two years ago, the party proclaimed victory over extreme poverty.
However, official data shows that many people in China still live on very little. Last year, the National Bureau of Statistics said that in 2020, according to the latest available data, more than 40% of the country’s population, or 600 million, had an income slightly above 1,000 yuan (about 140 dollars). ) per month.
Authorities have sometimes hit back at portrayals of the lives of the poor, which they say make China look bad.
“Return to Dust” ends on a tragic note. Shortly after the couple build a humble home and start raising chickens, the woman drowns in a river on her way to deliver food to her husband, and the desperate man ingests pesticides.
Karen Ma, author of “China’s Millennial Digital Generation,” which profiles seven young Chinese directors, including Mr. Li, said she expected “Return to Dust” to struggle to get the approval from the authorities, who must approve all films shown in China, given the descriptions of the difficulties. She pointed to the husband’s apparent suicide attempt at the end, which she said wasn’t exactly the “positive energy” the authorities are trying to promote.
“I was surprised that the film passed [regulators’] reviews in the first place,” she said.
There have been many discussions on social media about how the couple’s life in the film was exploited by those in power. For example, in one scene, a rich man from the village pressures the husband to donate blood to his sick father.
In a line from the film widely quoted by social media users, the husband says: “In the face of sickles, what can wheat do?
Other users said the film’s abject poverty, set in the early 2010s, was overblown.
An entity calling itself Kunlunce, which describes itself as an independent research institution but has promoted party goals, in a September 9 online article compared the film to a betrayal and asked the filmmakers why they wanted it he will be promoted before the party congress this month. He also criticized regulators approving the showing of movies, saying, “Don’t you feel ashamed and guilty when a movie that insults our party and our people, insults our government comes out of your hands? The article had over 100,000 page views on WeChat.
At the end of the film, after the death of his wife and the ingestion of the pesticide, the husband eats a hard-boiled egg, a luxury he had hitherto given up. He holds a donkey his wife made of straw as he lies in the house they built together.
When asked about the ending by Jiemian.com, a Shanghai-based media outlet, Mr. Li, the director, said it reflected reality. “Because the real world is like that. It’s hot and cold, right and wrong,” he said, according to Jieian. Mr Li did not respond to requests for comment sent to his social media accounts and a production company with which he is affiliated.
At the end of the film and in the credits, a line appears saying that with the help of the government and the other villagers, the man later moves into a new house and starts a new life.
Similar tweaks to create an ending more in line with the values the government is trying to promote have appeared in other film screenings in China.
“The only thing that [broadcast regulators] hate is an open and empowering end,” said Ms. Ma, the author.
Earlier this year, Tencent uploaded a version of the 1999 film “Fight Club” to its streaming platform in which a note was added at the end showing Edward Norton holding hands with Helena Bonham Carter as the buildings are collapsing. The note says the police prevented the explosions and sent Mr. Norton’s character to an asylum.
After an outpouring of criticism, the rating was removed from Tencent’s streaming version of the film. Tencent at the time did not explain the rating or say why it was removed.
In versions of ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ released in the US and around the world, the main characters go off together after it’s revealed that the film’s villain, Wild Knuckles, faked his death. to avoid being caught by the police.
In China, where authorities want to make sure bad guys aren’t glorified, the movie version is a minute longer to make room for stills with text saying Wild Knuckles is finally arrested and sentenced to 20 years. from prison.
Write to Liyan Qi at [email protected]
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