Gan Bi’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night Floats Down a Stream of Memory
It is difficult to describe the experience of watching Long Day’s Journey Into Night without sounding as if you are remembering a dream. The new film by China’s Gan Bi is more about ambiance than plot, more about the hazy feeling of attempting to travel back in time through the eye of mind. It is the very texture of the film that weaves a strange spell. Bi is one of the emerging new voices of Chinese cinema, which is already renowned for visual inventiveness. While audiences will be flocking over the next few days for the apocalyptic pageantry of Avengers: Endgame, Bi achieves a different kind of technical innovation in this film. Even if your friends drag you to the Marvel behemoth, or if you are one of those souls who enjoys crisscrossing the borders of arthouse and popcorn, this film is worth hunting for in where-ever far off corner it is playing. The highlight of Bi’s meditation on romantic longing is a 55-minute long take, during which the movie also switches to 3D. But it is not mere experimentation. Bi’s artistry creates an environment through the manipulation of dimension that brings out the very moods of the story.
The sparse narrative focuses on Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang), who fled his hometown years ago and now returns to discover that his father has died. Luo has a violent and dark past involving local gangsters and intrigues which culminated in the murder of his friend Wildcat (Hong-Chi Lee). But what truly haunts Luo is his romantic encounter with a beautiful woman we only know as Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang), who has disappeared. As the film drifts between his subconscious memories and what we presume to be the present, Luo embarks on a quest to find Wan Qiwen. After wandering rainy, neon-lit streets, he finds himself inside a movie theater where he puts on 3D glasses, and then we shift to a rural Chinese town, where Luo awakens in a tunnel and ventures out, hoping to find his lost love.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night defies every conventional expectation when we read terms like “noir” or “love story.” Gan Bi first became known in the festival circuit with his 2015 film Kaili Blues, which featured an acclaimed 40-minute long take. He is certainly rising in the ranks of Chinese cinema, and now worthy of being named next to someone like Wong Kar-wai. Like Kar-wai, Bi is a haunted artist, obsessed with the way a broken romance or missed opportunity casts a lingering mist over a person’s life for years, if not forever. An immediate comparison can be made with Kar-wai’s famous In the Mood for Love, his consuming symphony of meditative, gorgeous images and lonesome cello chords, where two potential lovers in the 1960s simply hold back from truly giving in. Yet even that film was more straightforward, set in real time. Bi seeks to reach into that strange ether the struggle to remember produces, when we recall an event or face, and are aware our mind will alter how things really were. The journey of the protagonist is similar to when we wander a city street or park, or revisit a particular location where a striking memory occurred, and as we pass through the images of the moment come alive like ghosts.
It is the most simple and direct memories that can evoke powerful feelings. Only a trauma can upstage the lasting scar in the memory of a broken heart. Long Day’s Journey Into Night has at its core a simple premise — a man searches for a woman embedded in his memories. This is merely the canvas for Bi to explore the way sets, lighting and camera can evoke feelings and surroundings. In a very true sense this film works like music or poetry. So dismissive is Bi of routine that it takes 77 minutes for the film’s title to even appear. You must allow a movie like this to soak into you. The first act, if one can call it that, is paced to a slow, immersive rhythm. Luo wanders his old haunts, catches up with figures from the past like Wildcat’s mother, all the while thinking back to Wan Qiwen. There is a moment in Luo’s memories where Bi lets the camera stay on him and Qiwen as they share intimacy, and without exaggerating the physicality, Bi makes us believe that yes, for the lonely sole this woman would inspire obsession. No time is wasted on cheap Hollywood plot twists. The editing flows in and out of the past and present, creating a disorienting dream state. The script’s language borders on existential poetics, with contemplations on nature and the firmament. Even the gangster movie elements, involving a possible mystery surrounding a gun and the death of Wildcat, dissolve as soon as Luo enters the movie theater and puts on his 3D glasses, which is the queue for the audience to do the same.
Once Bi switches to 3D he achieves something quite masterful. Typically when we walk into a 3D movie it tends to be a format reserved for action films or animated features, with the expectation that objects will fly at us or Aquaman’s trident will poke out of the screen. Bi uses the format to enhance the power of his astounding 55-minute long take which follows Luo through a rural area in the darkness of a cold night, wandering through its corners and back alleys. Luo journeys into town in a cable-car and wanders into a low-lit pool hall as some kind of outdoor singing competition takes place outside. Cinematographer David Chizallet conjures a pure, hypnotic sense of place and time. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the camera becomes a mind’s eye tracking along pathways and rooms. Every small detail of the production design becomes palpable through the three-dimensional technique. Luo meets another woman, beautiful and rugged, but there are also strange, nefarious men in this town, and a madwoman with a torch searches for someone. There’s no plot structure here, just the powerful sensation of finding oneself in a place that feels tethered to an experience being recalled. Maybe the new woman Luo meets is Wan Qiwen, or a projection of her, in the way we may dream of someone with another face. Few directors can successfully tap into this form of cinematic expression. Gaspar Noe came famously close with the more tripped out sequences of his Enter the Void, particularly in its hallucinatory final passages. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night never feels druggy. Instead, it is like the natural conjuring of imagery during REM sleep. As a film artist, Bi attempts to do justice to Antonin Artaud’s notion that, “cinema seems to me to be made, above all else, to express things of the mind, the inner life of consciousness.”
I am tempted to state that no one has ever used 3D in this fashion before. Even notable 3D works like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams used the format to merely take the viewer deeper into the contours of an image, impressively so. Bi is using his lens and the enhanced effect of a three-dimensional environment to travel into the fabric of what Luo is thinking. I recently dreamed I was walking through the halls of a grand apartment, a friend was there, the lighting felt both natural yet somewhat unreal. Bi’s film inspired me to recall this dream, because it isn’t so much about a plot as it is about floating like a specter. The rural town where Luo arrives is all dust cloaked in black shadows, and in the distance someone is holding a singing competition in the bare plaza. The sounds of what is being sung onstage reverberate slightly in the air as he speaks to the new mystery woman. No need to dissect a plot development here. The critic can only report back to the viewer what has been sensuously experienced.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night becomes one of those special films that transcends the idea of mere entertainment. It seeks to immerse the viewer in a particular reverie. Bi does not want to just re-tell the same old story of a character pining for a fleeting romance, but to evoke how it actually feels to remember a face, touch or moment. When reflecting on the cinema, Andre Breton once wrote that “on the fringe of the least dedicated as well as the emptiest lives the curve of a beautiful arm will reveal long shores of light.” Thus is the aura of what Bi achieves. The final moments are an elegant haze, in that way a dream seems to reach a climax, right before we open our eyes. If you venture into this film do not bring expectations, simply take a seat and float down its cinematic stream.