For the third time in a row, the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) went to a newcomer from China. This year, it was bestowed upon Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s debut, Ta fang jian li de yun (The Cloud in Her Room), a personal, melancholic B&W tale of 20-something Muzi, who returns to her hometown, Hangzhou, for the New Year’s celebration. There, she finds herself back amidst memories of a place and family that seem to be no longer there. The city has changed, with old buildings soon to be vanished. An apartment is all that seems to be left of her parents’ relationship, an attestation of seemingly departed love. Words linger through the untouched, dusty space, once embodied in Muzi’s experience in colour, but now rendered in black-and-white photography.
As she wanders through memories Muzi tries to find a sense of belonging in her hometown in the present. But the result is futile. Negotiating the borders between the materiality of the city and her feelings, she feels adrift, lost in an emotional miasma. This ever-present feeling of betweenness is also extended to the film’s form. Zheng Lu captures her protagonist in long, poetic shots, much like those of the anti-melodramas of Yoshishige Yoshida or Michelangelo Antonioni, but also through handheld footage, shot, for example, on an iPhone, or in the negatives of B&W, exposing the particles of the deepest luminosity of Muzi’s inner states.
In contrast to many of the Chinese depictions of the here-and-now, which often revolve around a direct criticism of a society changing at a breakneck speed, by portraying the overwhelming existence of everyday reality or the aftermath of the one child policy, Zheng Lu’s The Cloud in Her Room employs a fresh kind of subtlety that plunges the audience into an intimate and liminal world.
This conversation with Zheng Lu Xinyuan took place shortly after Rotterdam, through a series of emails. We then talked again recently after she returned after travelling to her hometown, Hangzhou. It wasn’t the end of the year, but it was without a doubt a moment of a certain end. We’ve all been going through the pandemic nightmare, so the perception of the film has no doubt been altered – for me, the viewer, and appreciator of her work, and for Zheng Lu, the filmmaker.
I loved the intimacy of the film and the formal subtlety is powerful. How much is this story coming from your own experiences? How much of Muzi is actually you?
The film is very close to me, but not in a sense that it is autobiographical. When the film travels and someone in another corner of the world watches the film on a random night in the cinema, maybe only Muzi stays with them. It is not important how much of me is in the character. It is more important to ask who is Muzi and who are you, there, sharing that moment with her.
Did you feel that there was something new you started to share with her once you finished the film and watched it for the first time?
What I was trying to say is that I don’t set a goal for the audience to get to certain emotions or understand any specific ideas from me. The film presents itself. What really matters, I think, is in which circumstances, and how, the audience gets to know, gets in touch or gets involved with the film. During the editing, sound design, colour-grading and scoring process, I watched the footage and then the picture-locked film countless times. But watching it again with a bit more distance now, the complex feeling of living in the reality back at where we shot the film, as the world has changed so much because of the coronavirus, it really does strike me. That complexity of situating oneself here and now still echoes with what Muzi is expressing in the film.
There are also some negative feelings about Chinese modernity. Weren’t you scared about the censorship?
I am aware of the censorship, but it should not be the filmmakers who are scared about the censorship.
Do you think that through this subtle approach the criticism of China has a bigger impact?
I do think that every little voice matters. The only thing that I can do at the moment is express myself. It is personal and hopefully, to some extent, universal. Yet how things are heard and how a film, a book, an art piece stirs people’s minds, is unpredictable. I don’t have a strong message to deliver. But I have a moment to share, which is impacted by the energy that is accumulated by living through the reality.
Was there any moment during the film production process, that you were doubtful about the form and message of the film?
Production in a way is also rewriting. Yes, there is always a sense of danger and also excitement hanging in the air during shooting. During the production, there was the designed content coming to life, and at the same time, there were also changes and challenges merging on set that I needed to face. But I think it is good to stay alert and keep asking myself questions.
A lot of Chinese independent filmmakers decide to portray the “shittiness of life” – to use the words of Tony Rayns – of the Chinese “here and now”. You, on the other hand, have decided to present the reality of the interiority of a woman in her late coming-of-age. But at the same time, there is a lot in the background, filtered through different media and film formats. How did this idea, of combining the private story and the story of a certain end, developed?
We all know that life keeps on going, no matter what. When the city is going through constant changes for reasons out of your control, how someone like Muzi lives through her everyday life is fascinating to me. Because at that time, you were witnessing the buildings that stored your past and your memories fade into oblivion, and watching people once close to you move onto different paths in their lives. I didn’t plan to tell the story as you see it now. I got to know the film gradually through the entire process of creating it as well. I did have a fully detailed script written, but location scouting and casting changed the script, and so did the shooting and editing, which played a part in the process of rewriting.
During the IFFR Q&A your editor, Liu Xinzhu, mentioned that the process of creating the film was pretty much based on a “feeling”. It is true that this film seems to privilege a feeling over, for example, something overly concrete or structured. What feeling specifically accompanied you in the process of making it?
The feeling of anxiety, maybe. The “feeling” that she was referring to can also be taken as a scent, a mood, or a unique way of narrative that only belongs to each film. Sometimes this “feeling” is buried in the footage and only sneaks out when we put certain sequences together, and sometimes when we cut a few frames out of a shot and it is gone. Different films get to the point of fully expressing themselves in different ways. For us, catching the flow of emotions and keeping an eye out when there are twists and turns are what we worked on during editing.
What kind of anxiety was that?
I would like to stay open on set, no matter whether it is about performance, set-ups, or ways of approaching the scenes. Besides the already-known and achieving what we planned to do in the first place, I wanted to grasp or dig into what was there at the moment, so that I would have more possibilities when we went further down to post production. The anxiety was there, because I needed to stay alert and I always want just a bit more.
Muzi seems to be in a liminal state. No place to go, no memories to hold onto, existing between the past and the present, and the future is nowhere to be found. In an alternative world, what would you like to say to her?
I don’t know what to say exactly. Even if I do, I don’t know if she will listen, ha ha. I think most of the time we just need to live through it.
Your film tackles the sense of belonging to a place, but also a certain longing for belonging and losing this sense of belonging to a city, one’s hometown, birthplace, and then, one’s family. Was this image shaped by your own experience of emigrating?
The film is very personal. My questions, for example, towards the fluidity of human relationships and how intimacy works in a modern city in China triggered the creation process. But it would be unfair to say that the film is only shaped by my own experience. For many people who left home for a long time, when we come back to where we were from, certain feelings will be stirred up by the situation.
Would you consider your position as an outsider?
I won’t consider myself an outsider. On the contrary, filmmaking to some extent is my way of involving and interfering with society in this era.
What about the image of intimacy? There are a few stops along the way in the film for the appreciation of detail. You also allow time for bodies to breath. What does that intimacy mean to you?
To me, intimacy shows a certain honesty about people’s relationships.
What about the honesty of the mother-daughter kiss? How did you come up with that scene?
The film asked for it I guess.
I had a feeling that, in some sense, The Cloud in Her Room is an apocalyptic film, one that deals with the idea of a certain end, perhaps the end of both love and memories, the end of one’s world, a shattered bubble.
If you like, you can put it that way. I think it is open for interpretation. To me, what comes after the end is more intriguing. When people walk out of the cinema… the film ends wherever it was in the characters’ lives, but every audience member will take a small piece of the film and walk back into life again. I think that is pretty beautiful.