Long Day’s Journey Into Night is only Chinese writer-director Bi Gan’s second film, and he has no interest in winning over any new fans — in a good way. There’s a unique vision here, one that goes against the grain of storytelling many come to expect when going to the movies. Following this film as a straight narrative will prove futile. However, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a more genuine representation about how people reflect on their past experiences. What Bi is more interested in is tapping into the narrative language in all of our heads. It’s that narrative the flits between memories of childhood and adulthood, without sequential order, bound by the illusions that tie them by association to make our stories.
From the disjointed scenes that make up Long Day’s Journey Into Night, we follow the perspective of Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a man caught in mourning two great losses. His father has passed away and he has divorced his wife. This sets him on a melancholy trip into his memories, where his mother brought honey home from a man who lived in the neighborhood and a childhood friend was murdered by a gangster. Of course, there are deeper stories behind these anecdotes, but they remain enigmas, weighted in the heaviness of implied possibilities. Then there is Wan Qiwen (the appropriately ethereal Tang Wai always dressed in a shimmering emerald satin dress), a mysterious woman connected to the underworld who might help him make sense of the mystery surrounding the death of his friend, who he calls “Wildcat” (Luo Feiyang and Lee Hong-Chi playing this person at different ages).
But before any part of this narrative can be connected Hongwu goes to the movies, puts on some 3D glasses and falls asleep. These characters and concerns disappear into echoes in a long take sequence representing a dream that just happens to be in 3D (you’ll know when to don your 3D glasses) of just about an hour in length. This single take marvel sees Hongwu travelling from the bowels of a mine under the guidance of a 12-year-old “ghost,” who appears from out of a cabinet wearing the skull of a bull, to a multi-tiered amusement center seemingly carved into a mountain and set against a pitch dark night. Some have referred to this sequence as a “tracking shot,” but it actually floats as if shot by a drone. How else could you follow the actor when he takes a slow-moving swing on a zipline down to the amusement center?
This is but a hint at the technical marvels this young director has in store for the adventurous movie goer looking for a film that feels more like a dream than a story. Beyond the oneiric narrative, the images feature extraordinary mise-en-scène. Mirrors and opaque glass panels are layered upon one another and refract Bi’s luminescent color palette, symbolic of recurring themes and characters in the film’s narrative. Fans of Wong Kar Wai and Hong Sang-soo will be visually impressed. The camera work, credited to three DPs, often glides to paint vast images that can’t be contained by the frame of the movie screen, and the film’s music, which varies between a languorous guitar-oriented piece and a dreamy wordless vocal-driven piece, by Lim Giong and Point Hsu, fades in and out of the narrative with a similar drifting quality. If you are ready to flow along with the images and loose storytelling of Long Day’s Journey Into Night there are rewards to behold incomparable to almost anything at the movies.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs 133 minutes, is in Mandarin with English subtitles and is not rated.
Screening update: the film returns to South Florida for two nights only, on May 25 and 27, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, which will show the film in 3D.
Earlier: It is currently playing in our South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque through May 2 only. On May 3 it will have a brief run at AMC Sunset Place 24. For screenings in other cities, visit the film’s official website and scroll down to playdates. The Miami Beach Cinematheque invited us to a screening for the purpose of this review.