Loneliness in the big city is the theme of Peng Lei’s latest indie comedy Dancing in the Room, which follows the misadventures of a college graduate who relocates to Beijing in search of a successful career and social excitement. Having completed her studies, Huabian (a charming Jiang Yuchen) leaves her drab coastal town for the capital, casually jilting the guitar-strumming boyfriend (Li Jing) who devotedly keeps her company but otherwise fails to look to the future. On arrival, she checks into a short-stay basement room and gets a job at a market, eventually saving up enough money to purchase a laptop so that she can make a living by click-farming for a dubious American company that pays international salaries minus an 80% deduction for China living cost. She then takes a small step up the urban lifestyle ladder by moving into a shared apartment, but her new life then stalls: hanging out with new friends at Houhai is not much fun without sufficient disposable income to buy drinks; an attempt at online dating results in an awkward encounter with a cosplay fanatic who has gleaned all of his hip cultural knowledge from surfing the virtual landscape; and a chance encounter with a photographer goes nowhere as he likes to spend most of his time meditating. The hometown boyfriend also makes his way to the city in the hope of reconciliation, but Huabain prefers the company of her pet cat, believing the struggling musician to be lacking ambition.
Although he often presents Beijing as an anonymous fog-shrouded landscape, Peng generally sees the lighter side of things even as Huabain’s dreams of joining the young elite are dashed at every turn. As much as she does no want to admit it, Huabain has unwittingly joined the ‘ant tribe’, an ever-growing community of graduates who live in close quarters in rented accommodation while undertaking low-level jobs in the hope of eventually landing a better position that is more related to their degree qualification. Like many in her situation, Huabain starts to live a largely online existence. She is contractually obligated to generate a monotonous 100,000 clicks-per-day for her employer but also keeps up with the fortunes of her friends through social network and browses discussion boards for hot topics that will make her seem sufficiently topical on those occasions when she does venture out of the apartment. Her initial contact with the cosplay obsessive sharply illustrates the manner in which disaffected urbanites connect in cyberspace through short-hand references with a range of cultural reference points popping up on screen as the potential boyfriend captures the impressionable Huabain’s attention with his apparent knowledge of a number of subject from banned international films to music to foreign culture. The rapport they share online is not replicated in the real world when a date that starts awkwardly enough in a fast food establishment becomes even more so once they reconvene to his apartment for a game of dress-up.
Peng is an artist who has managed to achieve above-ground alternative success as a musician – he leads the Beijing alternative band New Pants – and as the writer-director of unusual comedies such as this. His debut feature The Panda Candy (2009) concerned the dating experiences of two young women, while Follow Follow (2012) observed a Kurt Cobain fan on the cusp of the Beijing punk scene. Dancing in the Room, which is an extension of his wordless short A Cat Room (2012), further develops Peng’s playfully off-kilter aesthetic: he often frames his flawed yet likeable characters in a manner that accentuates their predicament, whether staring at computer screens in small rooms, or standing on a rooftop looking over the concrete jungle, with snappy cuts made to punctuate moments of despondency that are nicely underplayed by his appealing cast. Taking control of his soundscape, Peng provides a shoegaze score that adds a sense of romanticism to the apparent social-economic entrapment with the multitasking director’s pop sensibility really taking flight with a nighttime motorcycle ride through largely empty streets. However, his fantastical streak also has a dark side that permeates the third act when Huabain’s frustrations threaten to rupture her resolve. Dancing in the Room does not shy away from the problems facing young people who are unlikely to accumulate the fortunes of the generation before them, but its take on urban malaise is often very amusing, while the successive letdowns of protagonist are noted with wry humor and genuine understanding.