Chinese writer-director-coeditor Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s (鄭陸心源) feature debut, The Cloud in Her Room (2020), won the Tiger Award at that year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam and is now playing on MUBI. The best way to describe it is with the name of the company that presented it: The Old Avant-Garde Film. Just feast your eyes on the official posters.

But the film, coedited by Liu Xinzhu (劉新竹), is an old, tired avant-garde. Protagonist Muzi (Jin Jing 今晶, a non-professional) may sport a hacked-off Brit-Pop haircut (styled by Chen Zhi 陳芝), the film may be in leached-out black and white (cinematography by Matthias Delveaux, who also plays a foreign love interest), and there may be arresting imagery in the negative footage and naked bodies, but the prevailing mood of the film is ennui. The zeitgeist-minded may want to link this to the growing inequality and dwindling opportunities for youth in modern China, a state of affairs that has apparently caught Xi Jinping’s attention, judging by his recent macroeconomic policies. The film itself, though, offers a simpler explanation: Muzi has graduated college, and life outside school is inherently aimless.

Muzi returns to her hometown of Hangzhou, where she finds herself adrift. Her jazz drummer father (Ye Hongming 葉鴻銘) has remarried, giving her a stepmother (Liang Cuishan 梁翠珊) and toddler half-sister. Her mother (Liu Dan 劉丹) is dating one foreigner after another. Her artist boyfriend (Yu Fei 于飛) is noncommittal, and judgmental after sex. A gay friend wants her to have his baby. She has an unreciprocated crush on another friend (Dong Kangning 董康寧), an older guy who owns a bar.

My suspicion is that the great heaps of nothing in the plot, so listless and boring, are there to organically immerse us into Muzi’s life. But the lack of any narrative impetus whatsoever makes this just another form of exposition, thereby defeating the point.


Photo Credit: Rediance Films

Instead, our interest is held much of the time by Jin’s performance. Discovered by Zheng Lu on Instagram, where she’s an artist model, Jin manages to maintain an undercurrent of curiosity beneath her character’s boredom. In a worse film she would be turned into a naïf, but here her slightly protruding eyes, loafer’s gait, and hyperarticulated Mandarin convey a sense of unextinguished wonder at the world. (Both Zheng Lu and Jin are from Hangzhou, and most of the dialogue between Muzi and her father is in the local dialect, so Mandarin may be Jin’s second language.) We can’t help looking for the object of her wonder, even when it doesn’t exist.

Muzi’s characterization helps motivate the more experimental shots, as if they’re from her perspective. The film plays with reflections and inversions of all kinds. An upside-down shot of swimmers bobbing underwater in a swimming pool makes the surface seem like water and the water, air. A camera affixed outside a bus’s side window yields a literal rendition of Stendhal’s mirror in the roadway. And in the many shots using negative footage, the usual images’ predominant white is inverted to striking black.

Another avant-garde legacy is frankness about the human body. We get a long, erotic, and fully nude take of Muzi having sex with her boyfriend for the first time after six months of dating; both actors go full frontal, Yu during post-coital bliss, Jin in a remarkable later shot in her bathtub, elements of which recall the floating seaweed in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). (Lest you think I’m reaching, Zheng Lu has an MFA in film production from USC.) The camera captures everything — and why shouldn’t it?

It even captures the stunning scene in which Muzi gets dumped. At a restaurant, her boyfriend tells her he has a parting gift. When she closes her eyes and sticks out her hand, he tells her to start counting. As she starts, he stands up, takes her picture, and walks away. She keeps counting. In a more conventional arthouse film, she would keep counting in voiceover as the credits roll. But the film rejects emotional resolution, adding a final shot of a building demolition in negative. And when the credits do start, they’re superimposed on roiling waves of water and accompanied by Tseng Yun-fang’s (曾韻方) industrial punk score.

Adding up the two halves of the film gives us the conceit that creativity stems from curiosity and boredom. Films in the quarter-life crisis genre — like Rachel Lang’s feature debut Baden Baden (2016), which also features a young woman protagonist — often treat the drifting ennui of young adulthood as an aberration, or at most a regrettable rite of passage. But what if the ennui itself is what gets you through? The titular cloud is never explained, but it could be the product of the characters’ prolific smoking: a sign of boredom, and nascent creativity.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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