What lies in the curvature between reality and memory? The distortion of the past by how our desires shape our memories is an important theme of Bi Gan’s sophomore effort Long Day’s Journey into Night, where a fragmented account of the history between a man and a woman is ambiguous about what is real and what is not. Because it is told from the memory of the man as he searches for his long-lost love, the film keeps the audience guessing about the truthfulness of the film’s events. Yet however elusive it may seem, the plot of Long Day’s Journey into Night can be pieced together quite well based on the protagonist’s recollections.
Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to Kaili (Bi Gan’s hometown, and also the setting of his first feature Kaili Blues) a decade after he fled the town, only to find his father has died. This sets him off on reminiscing about events that took place in the past, before his flight. About the woman he was in love with, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), although we’re left in doubt whether that was her real name. Does Luo cast that doubt, or was it Wan herself? Wan was the girlfriend of a local gangster, Zuo Hongyan (Chen Yongzhong), who didn’t take the affair between the two very well. This led to the murder of Luo’s friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-chi) and Luo having to skip town. Now that he has returned, he searches both the Kaili streets and his memories for Wan.
In a film that is more interested in creating an atmosphere than in its simple story, the rhythms of the first half take some time to get used to, as the audience grasps for a storyline to hold together the emotions that Bi Gan evokes in his imagery. With the film jumping between then and now, in scenes that are reminiscent both of the melancholy of Wong Kar-wai and the sadness of Tsai Ming-liang, feelings are more important than the story’s coherence, not in the least because memories themselves are often incoherent. The opacity of the story is the point. The film is so rife with shots of reflections, so often a symbol of distorted reality (in this case memory), that it is hard to distinguish where the present starts and memory ends. Each shot is meticulously framed, almost too perfect to be true, as if Bi Gan is saying that we frame our recollections of the past in an idealized way.
A guy walks into a cinema…
About an hour in, you start to wonder why you got handed those 3D glasses at the entrance. “This is not a 3D film,” reads an opening title card. But as Luo enters a movie theater and puts on his glasses, it is clear the audience is supposed to do the same. Finally Bi Gan slaps the title on screen in bright green letters that pop out. What follows is a tour de force that in a technical sense largely repeats a feat that he performed in Kaili Blues. In that film, in a single extended shot of about 40 minutes, he followed his protagonist and other characters through space and time; on motorcycles, trucks, and on foot; through towns and across rivers. Here he does a similar thing (and the shot is even longer), but in terms of storytelling Bi Gan alters the idea behind the shot. Oh, and it’s in 3D.
The suggestion is that Luo actually fell asleep in his theater seat (and given this film was shown in Cannes, where dozing off during a screening is not unheard of, this seems fitting). What follows is a 50-minute take that feels like a dream, Luo’s dream, and the use of 3D enhances this feeling. Dreams can seem more real than reality, and by adding texture through the extra dimension, Bi Gan emphasizes this and creates a mesmerizing journey through Luo’s consciousness, in which he still searches for Wan. But there is more to the cinematography than the three-dimensional effect here. Where the first half of the film was mostly composed of static or panning shots, in Luo’s dream the camera is constantly swirling and roving around the action, and at one point actually flies down from a mountain into a town below (and who hasn’t had a dream in which they could fly?). This expression of a dream-like state in images is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement.
In his dream, Luo encounters a younger Wildcat, and later a different version of his former lover Wan Qiwen, plus an assortment of other characters including Wildcat’s mother (veteran Sylvia Chang). This dream sequence is even more impenetrable when it comes to piecing together a story compared to the memories that occupied the first half, just like actual dreams are often an amalgamation of different memories haphazardly slapped together, and the single take adds to this confusion. But it is supposed to. “Memories rust,” muses Luo earlier in the film. And dreams elude, one can add after a second half in which Luo never seems to get close to the characters who haunt him in his sleep.
With cinematographer David Chizallet (Mustang), Bi Gan creates an atmosphere wholly different from what he achieved in the two-dimensional opening half, shot by Yao Hung-i and Dong Jinsong. It is not merely a technical marvel. Aleksandr Sokurov, among others, already did this almost two decades ago in Russian Ark. What is added here, however, is the third dimension, and specifically the way in which it underlines the film’s thematics. Finally a director uses the technique to express and expand his ideas visually, to merge image with intent the way only a good formalist film can.
Elsewhere in the festival, we saw French enfant terrible Gaspar Noé take the audience from a state of bliss to a descent into hell in his Climax. In Long Day’s Journey into Night, Bi Gan takes us on a different journey, as he plunges us deeper and deeper into the maelstrom of unreliable memories. Through his use of cinematography and production design (stunning work by Liu Qiang) he enters Luo’s subconscious to show the process of recollection, wherein what is recalled is of lesser importance than the emotions that Bi Gan so eloquently captures. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a feast of mood and melancholy in which the young director (he has yet to celebrate his 29th birthday) confirms his status as one of the biggest talents in world cinema, and a major new voice in Asian cinema.