Do we all remember 3D? Ten years ago, it was all the rage in blockbuster cinema. At a time when larger studios were increasingly fearful of the threat of piracy, the “extra dimension” was regarded as sure-fire way to disrupt the practice and hopefully get arses in seats. Although the likes of Avatar and Clash of the Titans were huge hits, audiences never truly embraced the gimmick or the chunky glasses. In 2019, the choice to film in 3D seems almost quaint and antiquated. This, of course, makes it a ripe stylistic choice for contemporary art-film directors like Bi Gan.
Long Day’s Journey into Night will be a lot of things to different people; Ambitious, absorbing, masterful, maddening, plodding and pretentious. Any viewer could accuse Bi Gan’s sophomore feature of each of these and be making reasonable arguments in the process. What’s for certain is that this is one of the most singular cinematic experiences of the year. A nearly two-and-a-half-hour film with its final hour consisting of a one-take shot in 3D, there simply isn’t anything else like it in 2019.
Going into too much detail about Long Day’s narrative is something of a superfluous exercise. This is unhurried, circuitous filmmaking. Sometimes breathtaking, sometimes obtuse. The first section is a haunting, far-eastern neo-noir. Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang) returns to his hometown of Kaili in southeastern China. As he searches for his mysterious former lover and femme fatale Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei – Lust, Caution), he starts to recall their steamy, complicated affair. While his past begins to catch up with him, he always seems to be two or three steps behind Wan. As he obsesses further, he seems to become increasingly less tethered to his lonesome reality.
Luo maneuvers around the town like a lovesick, hard-boiled detective. He follows the typical, ambiguous clues: a polaroid with a face burned out of it, a phone number found in the back of a clock. Interviews with a convicted felon and hotel owner who doubles as another former lover of Wan’s then follow. The plot is, for the most part, implied more than explicitly told. This is Polanski’s Chinatown by way of Tarkovsky – if you look out for them you will catch deliberate references to the likes of Stalker and Ivan’s Childhood.
The camera is slow but rarely static. Drops of water appear to follow our leads from all sides of the frame, as if to drown our protagonist in a sea of dead-ends and cul-de-sacs. We get measured, methodical pans of rippling rivers, heavy showers and rooms with seemingly saturated ceilings. Neon-red cityscapes, foggy green smog and pale blue hues of seawater make up a strong pallet built of primary colours.
As Luo states at one point, “The difference between films and memory is that films are always false … but memories vanish before our eyes”. Long Day’s Journey’s into Night is about the shortcomings of both, or perhaps it is about the attempt of both working together in trying to depict a flawed version of truth. Film gives us a constructed reality while memory presents a constructed past that was once true. The glacial, sleepy movements of the camera in locations that seem to merge the natural and the urban result in a hallucinogenic descent into one’s unreliable version of the past.
If that first section was dreamlike, it would be a comparative disservice to say the same about the truly illusory final hour. With just under 60 minutes to go, Luo is mere hours away from reaching the woman he has been chasing. With some free time, he sees a 3D film in the cinema. We, like him, put on our glasses and the remainder of our movie is the film he is watching…or is it? It’s very possible what we are seeing is Luo’s own dream.
A staggering technical feat, we are treated to a single unbroken shot that consists of a motorbike ride, ziplines and a camera that seems to transcend the temporal plain as it floats elegantly above a puny Chinese town. We once again follow Luo in this sequence and to confuse matters further, he meets a woman who insists she is not Wan but is played by the same actress. There are allusions aplenty to events and people from Luo’s life as we get the sense that Bi Gan is giving us all the answers without actually telling us them.
It will be up to the viewer, however, to decide how much are answers and how much are more dead ends. Like Luo, maybe we’re obsessing and getting nowhere, and maybe that’s the point.