This year’s Sydney Film Festival has a track devoted to new films from China across a wide swathe of budgets, genres and styles, and Chinese director Peng Lei’s oddball portrait of the educated urban twenty-something, Dancing in the Room, just might be the cutest of them. It certainly looks to be the only one to include anything quite this adorable:
Huabian (played by Jiang Yuchen) is a young woman who moves to Beijing after completing her studies in search of all the excitement of city life. She swaps her disconsolate guitar-carrying hometown boyfriend (Li Jing) for the art and culture of the city; only to find that things aren’t so easy there, certainly not what she expected given her education and aspirations.
She begins her Beijing life renting a room in a basement three floors underground with only a broken television, and works a series of terrible jobs, culminating in a click-farming gig for an American company: you can work from home, just make sure the website gets 100,000 clicks a day! In the meantime she explores her new home, trying to make new friends, discover the sort of music they listen to in the big city, and perhaps even meet an intelligent, educated man who’s interested in the same things she is.
As Shelly Kraicer, the programmer for this year’s “China: Rebels, Ghosts and Romantics” track at SFF said in his intro before the film, Dancing in the Room is an unusual film. It’s low-budget, indie cinema, but unlike the vast majority of indie films made in China it went through the SARFT approval process and got the tick, eventually, for release in Chinese cinemas. It’s also focused on a demographic group that I haven’t seen portrayed much on film, nicknamed the Ant tribe (see Wikipedia) — University graduates who find that upon making it to the big city, they can’t find the work for which they have trained and have to settle for whatever jobs they can get.
That’s not to suggest that the film is a blackened, disconsolate depiction of the crushing of dreams. Far from it: Huabian’s adventures for much of the film have an almost whimsical tone, with writer/director Peng Lei deftly using black comedy to fill out his characters, from obsessions with cosplay and pop culture, to universal vinyl/analogue/film hipsterdom, to modern Internet dating.
In addition, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s the absence of a world-beating career that causes Huabian the most angst: rather, it’s the loneliness of life after college, and her inability to connect with the rich cultural scene she feels should be there, waiting for her in Beijing.
Dancing in the Room is a fascinating little film, from its quiet beginning to its thoroughly surprising ending. It’s darkly funny, occasionally sad, certainly unpredictable and filled with finely-observed little moments that are a credit to its director and to its cast. It’s great to see films like this accompanying more commercial Chinese cinema at SFF.