Director: Bi Gan
Stars: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang
In a very specific but entirely fitting sense, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night exists outside of time for me. The film was released in China on the last day of 2018. It received its (very limited) UK cinematic release in the last week of 2019. Now here I am, encountering it two days into 2020. Which year, exactly, does it therefore belong to for me personally? 2018? 2019? 2020? It matters little, but whichever it is, it may very well be my favourite film of that year.
Yeah, it’s going to be one of those reviews.
Cinema is an art of visual poetry, employing sound to enthral and immerse an audience into a particular world, a particular feeling. It is, by its very nature, dreamlike. Yet very few directors are able to conjure the sensation of dreaming on film. Many get close, or approximate. Rivette had the magic. Lynch has gotten very close several times. Carax, too. Gaspar Noé perhaps gets closest of all, yet he spins his dreams into nightmares; places that are daunting to visit and unpleasant to remain in.
There are others, but we should add to this nominal list Bi Gan, whose hypnotic, confounding, utterly desirable Long Day’s Journey Into Night perhaps comes closest of all – and that’s even before he closes the piece with an unbroken 50+ minute shot; one that leaves the ground more than once.
The film’s title card precedes this momentous achievement, some 70 minutes into the piece. Before that we’re cascaded through scenes which flit like memories, shifting this way and that, as Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) attempts to reconnect with an old flame. He is searching the town of Kaili for Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he once loved but who he lost contact with some 12 years previously. All he has is a cigarette-burned photo. His search will incorporate many other clues to her whereabouts; a green book; a karaoke bar; memories of his old friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi) and stories of a house that spins if you know how to cast a certain spell. Arriving at the cusp of his quest, Luo falls asleep in a cinema and Long Day’s Journey Into Night transports him into another world of symbolism and – potentially – reunion.
Both parts of the film are exquisite. People may bemoan that we reached November 2019 and the world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner failed to materialise, but Bi Gan suggests it merely didn’t manifest in Los Angeles as prognosticated. The a-chronological first ‘half’ of LDJIN takes place in a rain-sodden neon paradise; a noir maze all of its own in which Gan’s camera floats and dreams. Wan Qiwen’s shimmering green dress accentuates the emerald tint that blossoms everywhere, as though some exotic plant has germinated in the brain and its roots have penetrated the medulla, affecting everything we see. Blots of red and pink dapple this world like unidentifiable petals of forgotten flowers.
I’ll need a re-watch to un-mesh the sense-memory flood of images and exposition that’s dolled out in this long opening stretch. It may require multiple goes to piece together a narrative. But the film works on first approach if you just allow yourself to be taken by its lilting internal logic; a drifting sense of perpetual deja vu as words and visual motifs buoy you along.
These disparate pieces in place, Gan throws you into the extended take that finishes the piece. Is Luo dead? Is he dreaming? There are arguments for both and whose to say the answer isn’t yes in both instances? He meets a young version of Wildcat (Luo Feiyang) who wears a goat’s skull mask, implying – to these western eyes – a devil. But Gan’s dream is slipperier than that. A long, slow zip-line takes Luo across a mountain ravine where he meets Kaizhen (also Tang Wei). When we’re pursuing one intangible dream into the infinite, might another intangible dream come to mean just as much?
These and yet more haunting questions prickle around the edges. Wrestling conventional sense out of this piece of film seems counter-intuitive to relishing the experience of simply being in it. In short, don’t get too worried that you’re lost. The feeling of being lost is part of the point. That’s the feel of a dream. Even so, LDJIN doesn’t suffer the sense of confusion and pretension that capsizes many attempts at narrative evasion seen recently (one of these failures will be hitting UK cinemas soon…). One might well feel dislocated from traditional handholds while watching but – as with the best of Lynch’s work – Gan maintains such a level of confidence that we feel reassured. Elliptical as it may be, there is a method to his madness.
And its hard to understate how gorgeous his journey is. Gan’s epic shot that closes the piece was filmed in 3D, and Luo placing 3D glasses on himself marked the point at which audience members should join him. I didn’t see the film this way. My journey to the end continued in 2D. It mattered little, I feel. Gan still had me. His camera became my eyes, following Luo down this luminous twilight rabbit hole.
There’s a pointed speech in the film about the difference between movies and memory. That movies show you only fiction, while memories mix both the truth and lies. It’s a provocative statement, especially as Gan’s film feels so often like the opposite is true.