The Cloud in Her Room is an one-note exercise in empty style that fails to marry its form and content.
Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s The Cloud in Her Room represents the type of opaque arthouse drama that tends to do exceedingly well on the international film festival circuit, with critics bestowing praise upon these works that reads like they’re treating press kits as gospel. Most professional reviews from well-regarded trade publications have been quick to highlight how dreamlike the film’s monochrome cinematography is or how the lethargic narrative is intentionally aimless as a bid to mirror the desultory existence of its central protagonist Muzi (Jin Jing) as she visits her hometown of Hangzhou; what most have failed to do after authenticating such basic labels is to argue what value any of these elements actually brings to the film. This speaks to a larger failure of current criticism, wherein feature-length works that boast any impressive formalism, even if all it accomplishes is to mask the dull proceedings, are met in good faith with critics assuming the deficiencies are their’s and not the film’s. So when it comes to the nitty-gritty of assessment, it’s easiest to go with the obvious first: yes, the muted black-and-white color palette is indeed impressive and at times even impressionistic, and it does most of the heavy lifting in terms of establishing the film’s melancholy mood. But it’s only an impressive visual aesthetic, not a great one, which would require the look to work in tandem with the narrative in a way that builds upon its central themes, not just offering eye candy to those zoning out from the film’s central tensions.
Yet, one would be forgiven if they opted not to invest themselves in the day-to-day life of Muzi and her family, as Zheng herself doesn’t seem terribly interested, injecting little dramatic weight into their individual conflicts beyond surface-level complications — her father is a lecherous artist, the mother has “friends” from overseas — that don’t cause friction, but rather mere irritation. What’s even more burdensome here is Cloud’s inability to ever build into itself anything that suggests progression; each scene is stacked carelessly on top of the previous, oftentimes switching modes entirely in the form of docudrama-like interludes with minor characters, which is assembled in a way that crafts a rather centerless hole of a viewing experience. There are hinted-at sociopolitical underpinnings regarding fluctuating personal identity within a country that’s likewise in flux, but they’re so muted and underdeveloped that it feels more like stretching to locate profundity within a work that’s decidedly lacking in any. This isn’t to suggest that every piece of cinematic art needs to carry some burden of deep insight, but they do need something that coheres the visual and thematic components and finds meaning in a single, cogent entity rather than two separate ones inelegantly tethered. As it stands, works like The Cloud in Her Room aren’t concerned with such goals — and since it took the top prize at Rotterdam this year, it’s clear that there exists a market where a lack of ambition isn’t quite the deficit it would seem.
You can stream Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s The Cloud in Her Room on Mubi beginning on August 11.
Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 3.