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In a moment of frustration, the protagonist of The Cloud In Her Room, 22-year-old Muzi (Jin Jing), takes out her frustration with her relationships by stamping on a stray plastic bottle she encounters on a Hangzhou street. This hints at the wider interaction between characters and their environment in Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s experimental and engaging debut. Emotion and memory are tied up with the geography of the city, and the characters’ interactions with the spaces they inhabit and the objects they encounter often hint at the underlying attitudes to others as much as direct interaction does.
And indeed, The Cloud In Her Room is a decidedly tactile film: our introduction to Muzi takes place in her childhood apartment which is now falling apart and scheduled for demolition. As she wanders around the place that paradoxically provides her with space away from her family while also, through the film’s framing, constricting her from wider movement, she opens a window, only to have the pane break away in her hands and fall to the street below. Already the film is grappling with the ephemerality of the concrete, which will find its ultimate expression in the apartment’s demolition which also acts as the film’s conclusion.
Muzi has returned home to Hangzhou after graduating from college: the film exploring the restless movement of a young woman who has experienced a degree of freedom and is now caught between a sense of duty to her family who she evidently cares for and the desire for novel experiences, such as embarking on a relationship with a new boyfriend, all the while being left without a sense of forward momentum. Even her newfound penchant for smoking is a habit she picked up from her mother’s boyfriend: ideas of rebellion and responsibility are caught up in the eponymous clouds that cumulate around her.
Indeed, this sense of restless exploration coupled with familial responsibility brings to mind the narrative wandering, at times to the point of abstraction, of Rachel Lang’s light-hearted drama Baden Baden (2016). As in the French-Belgian venture, the young woman in her twenties does not experience any particular clash of choices or overriding desire for what to do next: rather parallel narratives play out and occasionally cause Muzi to act out in indirect ways. Jin Jing’s outwardly placid demeanour masks a deeper unease which occasionally comes to the surface. Her performance excellently matches the ambivalence and understateness of the script.
This same uncertain exploration plays out in Matthias Delvaux’s ambitious cinematography. Receiving praise and admiration for its influences from French New Wave cinema, The Cloud In Her Room plays around with exposure and negatives, the film’s black and white inverting in moments of extreme introspection. Similarly, the camera changes source throughout, at certain times becoming all-but-diegetic when capturing Muzi in a talking head ruminating on her childhood apartment or acting as an iPhone camera recording a school fashion show. At other times the camera remains aloof and external. Much like Muzi herself, the camera appears uncertain of what role it should play – or, perhaps, places faith in itself that it can adapt to the necessary circumstances.
And, indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Xinyuan’s feature is the interplay between protagonist and camera. Muzi spends a lot of time, whether intentionally or not, trying to avoid the camera’s gaze: averting her eyes or turning her head away from the lens when she is caught up in rather intrusive close ups. However, ultimately both Muzi and The Cloud In Her Room recognise that, for good or for ill, she is a character who cannot exist beyond the camera.