The Cloud in Her Room (Zheng Lu Xinyuan, 2020)

You might imagine the cloud in Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s The Cloud in Her Room as something like a comic-strip thought balloon: this is very much a film of pensive, sometimes airily abstracted moments. Or it might just be tobacco smoke. So many cigarettes are smoked in the course of this Chinese debut feature—most of them long, slim, elegant—that you wonder whether Zheng is simply reflecting current Chinese social habits or possibly harking back to the Gauloise-laden salad days of the French New Wave. Possibly both: what her film certainly has in common with that cinema, and many other generations of debut cinema, is a sense of youth as a period of both insouciance and intense anxiety, when a dreamy or agitated young filmmaker can suck on a shot and then fling it away, just another cigarette end, before lighting up one more.

What The Cloud in Her Room also has in common with much young independent and experimental cinema through the generations is a free-associative, diaristic, even scrapbook feel. It’s as if Zheng were shuttling from idea to idea, image to image, and leaving the viewer to latch on as best they can to this meandering train of thought. That might make the film sound improvised or shapeless, although it’s neither. Still, its structure is far from obvious, and its narrative—about a young woman tussling with past and present troubles, familial and romantic—emerges at its own leisurely pace in between the images. The winner of the Tiger Competition Award in Rotterdam in January, The Cloud in Her Room is a film with a very distinctive and appealing voice; it was due to play in Film at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films season, now postponed because of the coronavirus, but watch this space, as Zheng’s debut is worth waiting for.

Shot in her own hometown of Hangzhou in eastern China, Zheng’s black-and-white film may or may not be autobiographical per se, but in its jazzy extemporizing looseness, tendency to jump tracks, and intense focus on its careworn young heroine, it certainly feels highly personal. We might assume that the protagonist is the young woman seen in close-up in the opening sequence, telling a story about an encounter in an apartment block—the sort built in the town by Hong Kong people in the ’90s, she says. In fact, we only see her again much later, while the heroine turns out to be the other woman in her story, 22-year-old Muzi (Jin Jing), back in her hometown to celebrate New Year and to pick up on the threads of her complicated life with her parents now separated. Her father (Ye Hongming), a former artist now making his living as a jazz drummer, has remarried and has a young daughter, Niu. And her glamorous mother (Lui Dan), who sees Muzi very much as a peer and a drinking partner, is going out with a Japanese guy but later takes up with a younger Dutch boyfriend, Thomas (the scene where he teaches Muzi’s mum some basic Dutch is droll and tender, and of course doused in smoke).

The Cloud in Her Room is a film of fragments and brief incidents, and sudden, not always explicable changes—changes in both the film’s mood and the characters’. At one point, Muzi and her photographer boyfriend Yu Fei (Chen Zhou), with whom she’s not slept, go to the now empty apartment where she used to live with her parents; the couple have a tender session of first-time sex, candidly and rapturously captured in a long take. It’s a moment of ecstatic emotional release, followed by a marvelous scene of them lying on the bed together, lost in the dreamy languor of a post-coital afternoon, the sounds of the city buzzing outside the window. But then comes the sudden shift, as the couple ride in the back of a cab afterwards, with Yu Fei sunk in moody tristesse (floppy-haired, arty, he does in fact wear his tristesse very fetchingly).

Meanwhile, Muzi also takes a fancy to an older man (Dong Kangning), the weather-beaten, wolfish owner of a bar where she’s seen spending an occasional boozy evening; at one point, she sings him an awkward, flirty “Happy Birthday,” Marilyn-style. She also spends time with her half-sister, seen at her school practicing some catwalk-like dance moves with her class, and with her dad, in conversations on a rain-swept rooftop, telling him off for being away too much at gigs, and not devoting enough time to Niu. Muzi’s most complex relationship, however, seems to be with her mother, who gets a number of moments to herself in the film—that Dutch lesson, and a dour moment with her Japanese guy, glumly taking turns to play that game of catching a wooden ball, bilboquet. Mother and daughter go drinking, then stagger boozily up a flight of stairs; they also attend a karaoke club, Mathieu Delvaux’s camera exploring the labyrinthine windings of its futuristic corridors, resembling a corny sci-fi movie set. Then the women kiss in extreme close-up, in one of several sequences apparently signaled as fantasy, or hypothetical, or poetically not quite real, by abrupt shifts into negative—like a later shot of a black sun blazing in a pale sky, or another in which the screen splits into mirror-image diptych.

If anything, water plays as important a role as does smoke: whether it’s the torrential rain outside the windows of a bus at night, or the drips of the roof of a vast construction site or quarry that Muzi visits early on, or the wide expanse of water over which we follow Muzi as she drifts on a bridge or pier. There’s also the bath sequence in which the camera hovers over her naked crotch, then closes in to watch the water lapping on her pubic hair; director Zheng luxuriates tenderly in the relaxed physical candor of her lead actress and apparent alter ego. Water also seethes, in positive and negative images, under the end credits, to the sound of vinyl crackle and electronic pulse of Tseng Yun-fang’s score—a rare moment of aggression or turbulence in the film. And, in the most disconcerting moment of all, there’s an ingeniously odd underwater sequence, showing Muzi and another swimmer bobbing curled up like human buoys in absolutely clear water—only with the image inverted, so that they seem to be floating on top of the water, and then momentarily in the air above it.

The Cloud in Her Room is an odd mix of the seemingly off-the-cuff and the elegantly artificed: on one hand, rough-edged and somewhat conventional denoters of youthful now-ness like the cellphone image of Muzi putting on her makeup, texts flickering up on her screen; on the other, the perfectly composed image of a barge drifting down a river, or of a riverside under a night sky that glows like steel. It’s also a film that veers unexpectedly between the minute—those fearlessly intimate facial or bodily close-ups—and the expansive, like the shot of three figures standing under the vast dome of the cavern. The film presents itself as an entire world unto itself, and Zheng Lu Xinyuan explores every corner. But whether that world is to be considered a corner of contemporary China, or of its director’s own life or psyche, that’s something that the film lets us imagine for ourselves.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes the Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.