Director and writer Bi Gan sharpens his surrealist gaze in his sophomore drama, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” His 2015 debut “Kaili Blues” made waves in art house cinema around the world and elevated Gan as a promising visionary in a new age of auteur filmmakers.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” while unrelated to Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 drama of the same name, unfolds like a play, divided into two acts. The film centers on Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang), who returns to his hometown after learning his father has died. Once in Kaili, Luo is flooded with dreams and memories of a woman he once loved, named Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang). In the final act, Luo embarks on an otherworldly odyssey to find his lost lover in an epic 59-minute unbroken sequence.
In theaters, Gan intended this section to be in 3D, revealed in the first act’s final scene when Luo arrives at a movie theater and puts on his glasses. Unfortunately, people streaming this movie at home cannot indulge in this experience; the absence of 3D spectacles, however, does not undermine Gan’s awe-inspiring craftsmanship.
Gan enlisted three cinematographers in the making of this film: Yao Hung-i, Jingsong Dong and David Chizallet. Dizzying, hazy and epically ambitious, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” demands rapt attention to untangle the knotted, fragmented narrative. It shrugs off simple storytelling conventions to showcase artistic authorial ambition. The languid camerawork pans unhurriedly across its scenes, notably right to left, as if the camera itself moves to remember the past. The film frequently oscillates between flashes forward and flashes backward, dissolving any sense of temporality until the final progression. As a whole, the movie is utterly confusing, but in parts, it is gorgeous.
Paralleling the puzzling plot, the cinematography employs motifs of obscuration and reflection. The camera often captures characters smoking as gray mist unfurls dreamily from their cigarettes. Instead of shooting the scene directly, Gan constructs another layer of framing, shooting his scenes through a windshield or a fence or underwater, augmenting distance between the viewers and the characters.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” lingers in liminal spaces, blurring dreams and reality, the real and the fantastic. This obsession with fluidity persists throughout the movie and colors the final continuous shot where Luo begins his journey in twilight, the bridge between day and night. Gan choreographs an exquisite final sequence: The camera, like Ariadne’s golden string, follows Luo through a dreamlike labyrinth. There is no Minotaur in Gan’s epic, however, no sense of urgency. The film runs 2 hours and 18 minutes and rejects any call for hurry in its slow, soft and contemplative shots.
While soaring in its cinematography, however, the movie stumbles in its fragmented story, which equivocates the answers to simple plot-based questions. Each printed character in this article is more fully developed than any of the characters in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” The women remain elusive and mythicized, immortalized in a romantic memory. Even the protagonist feels like a basic figurehead. The vibrant characters Luo meets in the final uncut sequence slip away just when they become interesting.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” deliberately evades conventional storytelling. The movie approaches dialogue with a cautious hand, sometimes only including the lulling white noise of a passing car or sloshing puddles or the hum of fluorescent lights. Gan saturates his film in nostalgia and melancholy with visuals to convey emotion.
This movie will not resonate with every audience. While appreciating its aesthetic drive, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” ultimately idles, never reaching a satisfying destination.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is currently available for streaming on Kanopy.
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