Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Diqiu zuihou de yewan) first published by VODzilla.co
“Any time I saw her, I knew I was in a dream again. And once you know you’re dreaming, it’s an out-of-body experience. Sometimes you float upwards. In my dreams I would always wonder if my body were made of hydrogen. If so then my memories must be made of stone.”
Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Diqiu zuihou de yewan) begins with this voiceover from Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), while the accompanying image – of a woman’s hands reaching for a microphone to sing – must come, whether experienced for real or dreamt by Hongwu, at the film’s chronological end. The absence of the woman’s face from the frame, as well as the content of Hongwu’s words, suggests (accurately) that a central motif of this film will be the pursuit of the elusive.
The singing woman in the green dress (Tang Wei) is elusive in more ways than one. 12 years earlier, in 2000, unable to find the fugitive suspect in the murder of a friend, Hongwu had instead found the suspect’s green-dressed girlfriend Wan Qiwen – “a movie star’s name,” as one character points out, and perhaps not her real name at all. If, in assuming the role of gun-toting ‘detective’, Hongwu was inspired by the movies he loved, then Qiwen was, at least in his mind, a classic femme fatale, seductive and treacherous in a dangerous, neon-lit world. Part of Hongwu’s attraction to Qiwen is her close physical resemblance to the mother who disappeared when he was a child and whose photographic image he keeps on him. Hongwu’s brief entanglement with Qiwen led him to 12 years of exile, but when his elderly father dies, Hongwu returns, and finds himself drawn once more into a search for both lover and mother – a search governed by the melancholy of loss, in a landscape built from experience, memory, cinematic allusion and dream.
Like his feature debut Kaili Blues (Lu Bian Ye Can, 2015), independent director Bi Gan’s second film – a contemplative noir fantasia that puts the viewer In The Mood For Love – is set in and around his native Kaili, a county-level city in China’s Guizhou province. The two films are also thematically linked, as once again a male character embarks on a quest that is also an oneiric trip down memory lane, and that culminates in an impossibly long, impossibly elaborate single take (thanks to months of preparation by cinematographers Yao Hung-i, Dong Jinsong and David Chizallet).
The film’s title might suggest Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 play, but really the film is named for an irrational second-act segue from the year’s longest day (the summer solstice) into the its longest night (the winter solstice). For Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a film of two halves. Its first section tracks Hongwu’s renewed pursuit of Qiwen, intercut with possibly unreliable flashbacks to their first meeting over a decade earlier, and driven by clues (a broken clock, a damaged black-and-white photo) that symbolise the slippery, fleeting nature of time. All of this is presented abstractly and impressionistically and, despite the languid pacing associated with the ‘slow cinema’ movement and the guiding presence of Hongwu’s expository voiceover, demands close attention from the viewer to put its narrative pieces together in reconstructing Hongwu and Qiwen’s short but intense relationship.
The second narrative section comes when Hongwu is just over an hour away from catching up with a woman who might be Qiwen. To fill in the time, he enters a fading cinema, puts on a pair of 3D glasses, and drifts off into a world of cinematic reverie. At this point, over halfway into the film’s duration, the title Long Day’s Journey Into Night appears on screen for the first time, formally dividing the film’s two sections. What follows reconstitutes everything that we have already seen into a single-take, real-time dream, also shot, like the film that Hongwu was watching, in 3D, and presented as a long, dark night of the protagonist’s soul (during the winter solstice). This technically virtuosic and visually mesmerising sequence follows Hongwu as he uses various modes of transport to journey through the surreal topography of his mental flotsam and jetsam, all in pursuit of his lost love for the son he may have had, the mother he barely remembers, and the woman who left him in the lurch. The mine and village through which Hongwu travels are a labyrinth of the mind, complete with their own Minotaur – or at least a boy (Luo Feiyang) wearing a bull’s mask.
Here something magical occurs, as day becomes night, as actors recur in different rôles, as rooms spin and characters take flight (“Sometimes you float upwards”), and as the cinematic form itself becomes a metaphor for ghostly absence, human longing and nostalgic desire. “The difference between film and memory is that films are always false,” Hongwu declares in voice-over – yet in his dream, the aspirant singer Kaizhen (played, like Qiwen, by Tang Wei), tells him, “The TV said dreams are lost memories.” Indeed, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, movies, memories and dreams are so inextricably intertwined that the film ends up being about all three, with truth remaining as elusive as Qiwen, and fantasy bridging the gulf. Set to Lim Giong and Hau Point’s plaintive score, this is a beautiful, delicate affair, where the transitory and the eternal meet in a kiss. As an exploration of yearning, Bi’s romantic mystery, calmly and quietly, delivers fireworks,
Summary: Bi Gan’s noir-inflected trip down memory lane brings more Kaili blues while putting the viewer in the mood for love.
© Anton Bitel