About halfway through Long Day’s Journey Into Night, our hero Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a middle-aged man who falls somewhere between fatalist and romantic, enters a dingy movie theater and slumps into a seat. Glancing around, he slides on a pair of black 3D glasses. The audience, equipped with an identical pair, mimics him on cue. What follows is kind of collective trance that will have you careening through a cavern, whisked through the air, and roaming around ruins—all captured in a single, uninterrupted take that extends all the way through the end of the film. It is a full hour long. It leaves you breathless. You will want more.
As filmgoers, we have been conditioned to expect from 3D movies some kind of spectacle. An action-packed affair, perhaps, or a shocking display of realism. Yet Bi Gan, the 29-year-old native of Kaili, China who wrote and directed Long Day’s Journey, envisions a use for 3D that is less stimulating than cerebral. Memories, as Bi explained in the Q&A after the film’s US premiere at New York Film Festival on Tuesday, are three-dimensional conjurings of a past experience. With his 3D long take, Bi sought to imitate this process, inducing in his audience a full-on communal fugue state.
Bi made his debut in 2016 with the poetic Kaili Blues, which includes an equally mesmerizing long take (that one runs 40 minutes). With a daunting level of detail and expert grasp of mood, Long Day’s Journey ventures even further into expressionistic new territory, pondering questions of time, space, and truth embedded within filmmaking so sophisticated that Wong Kar-wai and Andrei Tarkovsky come to mind. With this formidable sophomore feature from Bi, it feels as though a new master world-builder really has been born.
Like Bi’s first, much of Long Day’s Journey takes place in and around Kaili, where Luo grew up but left as a young adult; we open as Luo, deep in greying, drooping middle age, is pulled back to the town by the death of his father. The camera wanders Kaili’s damp streets as Luo’s voiceover flows steadily, providing flashes of an enigmatic past that includes the death of his friend, Wildcat, at the hands of gangsters. Paying a visit to the family restaurant, Luo pulls a broken green clock from the wall—one he is told his father used to sit in front of for hours—to find a tattered photograph concealed inside.
So begins a vague noir mystery that we are only loosely able to follow, one that hinges on Luo’s long-ago love affair with femme fatale Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei) who, clad in a dress the same green as the broken clock, feels equally as transient and removed from time. (There is also a green book of magic folk tales Wan leaves in Luo’s possession.) Luo meets Wan on a train that’s been halted by a mudslide, and their relationship proceeds with a series of meetings in a leaky basement in the year 2000. In noir style, Luo and Wan are often displayed either from the back, through glass, or in reflections in mirrors and pools of water. Tied together by Luo’s sullen voiceover, stylized memories of the romance move across the screen like pieces of alluring stained glass, though we’re never quite able to fuse them together to make a lucid whole.
This is a precarious world that Luo inhabits, one where time is splintered and space is flexible and everything threatens to collapse at any moment. Kaili’s terrain seems to be in constant flux; repeated radio and television advisories warn of impending storms and hazardous mudslides, such as the one that enabled Luo and Wan’s meeting in the first place. The year 2000 is similarly significant: the turn of the century was a time, as Luo notes to Wan at one point, that many prophesied for the end of the world. Yet the apocalypse never came, Luo reminds Wan reassuringly—although the broken clocks, ever-flowing rain, and fantastic green book stories hint that the couple has been dislocated from time nonetheless.
The film is full of tiny details like this, ones that are introduced, vanish, and then reappear in various forms: dyed red hair, apples, water, flying, ping-pong, to name just a few. These clues don’t lead anywhere precise, but rather operate as motifs serving to cohere the film as an eccentric, enclosed work of art. Once the final 3D hour of the film arrives, we are transported but not lost; familiar symbols anchor us within Bi’s world like elements from our real life appearing in a dream.
Including that final, imaginative voyage was clearly risky. As a whole, Long Day’s Journey has a mesmerizing, at times soporific effect, and finishing the film with an unhurried, hour-long take demonstrates just how gutsy Bi is ready to be. But as the camera trails Luo through the hazy night, encountering people and places from his past (and thus our own) along the way, we are plunged into a moody world that, at the outset, may feel strange and unstable—but one that, by the end, we don’t want to leave.