'The Cloud in Her Room': Film Review | Rotterdam 2020

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Evanescent and enervating.

Chinese writer-director Zheng Lu Xinyuan's debut scooped up the top prize at the Dutch festival's 49th edition.

A driftily disjointed evocation of urban ennui, Zheng Lu Xinyuan's feature debut The Cloud in Her Room (Ta fang jian li de yun) combines narrative and experimental techniques to conjure the inner life of its 22-year-old protagonist Muzi (Jin Jing). It was a surprise winner of the top prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam — the Tiger Award, worth €40,000 ($43,785) — with its triumph seen as an "upset" not least because this was the third year in a row that the event's jury opted for a monochrome Chinese production.

In terms of future exposure, Zheng Lu's diaphanous, gentle paced and deliberately opaque picture will probably land somewhere between the 2018 victor, Cai Chengjie's The Widowed Witch (which featured brief color sequences) and Zhu Shengze's awkwardly titled "Present. Perfect," a groundbreaking documentary comprised entirely of footage taken from a live-streaming website, which enjoyed considerable festival play in subsequent months.

Like Zhu, Zheng Lu completed her film studies in the U.S. at the University of Southern California. And there's a certain international feel to The Cloud in Her Room, shot by China-based Belgian DP Matthias Delvaux, who also pops up in a small role as the youthful boyfriend of Muzi's mother (Liu Dan). There's certainly nothing specifically Chinese about the existential angst endured by the main character(s) here, disoriented and alienated by the rapid pace of progress in the 21st century.

Reportedly autobiographical in origin, the slender story sees Muzi return home to the eastern city of Hangzhou (also the writer-director's birthplace) to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. Her parents are divorced, her musician father (Ye Hongming) has remarried and is the father of a young daughter, while her mother seems to drift between boyfriends in a haze of alcohol and cigarette smoke. She's not alone in the latter addiction, however, as tobacco is consumed by nearly all of the adult characters on view — this from a filmmaker who made a 2017 short titled Smokers Die Slowly Together. Our lackadaisical heroine Muzi in particular seems to spend a considerable chunk of the running time dragging on a cigarette and staring moodily into space.

Returning home forces Muzi to reflect on her situation, her prospects and her love life. She's stuck in a somewhat unsatisfying (and seldom-consummated) relationship with easygoing photographer Yu Fei (Chen Zhou), who turns up unexpectedly to visit her in Hangzhou. But a chance encounter with an older, more edgily charismatic bar owner (Dong Kangming) opens up new possibilities. And then there's a female friend of her own age, who pops up from time to time in such enigmatic fashion that she may perhaps be nothing more than a figment of Muzi's imagination. Or, perhaps she is actually another lover... 

Indeed, it's hard to be entirely sure of anything in this film, constructed as a series of fragmentary narrative interludes alternating with dreamy episodes and the occasional quasi-experimental abstraction. Zheng Lu pulls off one effortlessly brilliant coup around the 80-minute mark, filming a swimming-pool visit underwater and upside down, so that the bathers appear to be floating near an undulating silvery ceiling.

Occasionally the image switches to negative, with weird, poetic results, including the very final shot of a building under demolition. The latter touches on the pic's very concrete evocation of Hangzhou, a historic city (at the other end of China's ancient 1,200-mile Grand Canal from Beijing) of nine million people seldom captured on film despite its obvious photogenic qualities, where large bodies of water — river, lakes — are seldom far away.

Like most large Chinese cities, Hangzhou, host of the 2016 G20 summit, is engulfed in the chaotic flux of modernization. "Every time I come back," Muzi muses, "it feels more different than before." Zheng Lu makes it clear, of course, that these changes are both mirrored in and an engine of Muzi's own internal transformations. Still somewhat immature and even childish, she has yet to come to terms with her own status as a responsible adult, navigating the fissures of her fractured family — and her own romantic entanglements — with hesitant, awkward steps; the clumpiness of her footwear is frequently emphasized.

Zheng Lu operates with much more confidence, exploring the visual and aural potentials of the cinematic medium in a freewheeling manner that, at its best, exhilarates with its audacity and virtuoso flourishes. Whether there is really enough going on here to sustain a 101-minute running time is another matter, however. It could be that the director, who cut The Cloud in Her Room with Liu Xinzhu, needs to work with a more assertive editor if her idiosyncratic vision is to come into properly coherent and rewarding focus.

Production companies: Blackfin Production, Nina Xiao
Cast: Jin Jing, Liu Dan, Chen Zhou, Ye Hongming, Dong Kangning
Director-screenwriter: Zheng Lu Xinyuan
Producer: Wang Zijian
Cinematographer: Matthias Delvaux
Production designer: Sheng Chenchen
Composer: Tseng Yun-fang
Editors: Zheng Lu Xinyuan, Liu Xinzhu
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (competition)
Sales: Rediance, Beijing

In Mandarin Chinese
101 minutes