Zheng Lu Xinyuan on The Cloud in Her Room

In her hometown of Hangzhou, Chinese filmmaker Zheng Lu Xinyuan shot her Tiger-nominated debut feature The Cloud in Her Room, exploring feelings of alienation in a place that has ceased to feel like home.

In The Cloud in Her Room, a feeling of loneliness permeates the black-and-white images that capture the wanderings of a young woman called Muzi. Muzi revisits places from her past and people to whom she tries to reconnect during a short visit to her family for the New Year’s celebrations. “In relationships, people pretend that they can’t live without this other person,” Zheng Lu notes, “but actually these feelings often only exist for a very short moment. They also shift. That kind of fluidity of what we choose to believe, follow, and hold on to, is what I’m interested in.”

It feels like a very personal film. Where did the idea initially come from?
“It’s a film that takes place in my own hometown and deals with my memories of the place, but not in a nostalgic way. I want the film to be about the present. We’re experiencing everything through Muzi’s point of view. She passes through people’s lives, people that she’s involved with but that in a sense she’s also alienated from. She’s not relying on anyone, and they’re not relying on her to keep their lives going. That part is very real to me. In a relationship you play a role – as a daughter, a girlfriend, in an encounter with a new love interest – but at the end of the day, people’s lives move on independently.”

Is that how you experience society?
“It’s also my generation’s experience of being a single child. Growing up, I spent a lot of time by myself at home in a tall apartment building. I would look out the window and see a neighbour hanging clothes in their apartment across the street. In a way they were really close to me, but at the same time there was this physical distance because I would never talk to them. That’s the kind of feeling I wanted to put in the film: like you see and observe the outside world but you can’t touch it. And with the people that are physically close to Muzi, she experiences another kind of distance, a gap in time, because they can’t go back to the life that they lived together.”

Why did you choose to film in black-and-white?
“I want to dissolve the boundaries of factual reality, fantasies and dreams. In many films that are shot in colour, when there’s a flashback or a dream it’s shown in black-and-white. Here, everything is in black-and-white, and you really have to judge based on the content itself.”

And what about the moments when the image switches to negative?
“There’s a kissing scene, for example. This is an expression of an emotion. It can be reality or fantasy, and to me it’s not very important to define which part is which. As long as you’re seeing it, it’s real.”

With your main actress Jinjing Gong you made a short film in 2018, A White Butterfly on a Bus. Was that a pre-study for your debut feature?
“Not exactly. I had started writing the script for my feature film much earlier on, in 2014. The short film was a way to try a different way of writing. Instead of starting from words and then moving on to images, I tried to start with going to locations and build the image directly from what I see, hear, feel, and what I get from the actors, their interactions with one another and with their surroundings. Having tried that process in the short film, I also used it in the feature film.”

“The script I wrote was a fictional version of my memories of past experiences and people that I’d met. But when I met the actors, a new round of writing started, in which I used what they brought to the characters. There’s no predefined image that I want to accurately recreate from my imagination. I try to cast people who are close to my characters, so I can see what they’re doing when they’re trying to become the characters. I’m very interested in that process.”

So how do you work with your actors?
“Many of the cast are non-professionals, so it’s important for me to keep their first reaction to running a scene. So instead of doing a lot of pre-shoot rehearsals, we take a lot of time on set. At the actual location, while we’re setting up lights et cetera – that’s the moment when the actors really understand what’s going on.”

Photo in header: Zheng Lu Xinyuan © Marwan Magroun