Christopher Nolan described Inception as a heist film taking place in the architecture of the mind. Bi Gan’s sophomore effort Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a neo-noir with the same setting. While the noirs of the 40s and 50s always had an air of unreality to them – with their emphasised shadows, dark cityscapes and cipher characters – the Chinese writer-director takes that one step further. The last half of the film is a nearly one hour long dream sequence rendered as a single take in 3-D.
No relation to the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, the film chronicles the return of Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) to the town he fled from many years previously. Back for his father’s funeral, his thoughts turn to his past life. Luo recalls the murder of an old friend, Wild Cat while searching for Wan Qiwen (Lust, Caution’s Tang Wei), a woman who he once shared a brief, intense affair.
Long Day’s Journey requires a lot of patience. Bi Gan is not one for linear storytelling. Even during the portion of the drama set in the real world, the film is chock full of enigmatic flashbacks, strange voiceover narration and cryptic conversations. Eventually, the plot somewhat comes into focus. Gangsters and cinema slayings are introduced. Still much of viewers’ time watching the first half of Long Day’s Journey is spent figuring out exactly what’s happening, and it occasionally feels like Bi Gan is deliberately trying to confuse viewers.
For instance, the lead character is named Luo. Yet, there’s a big baddie seen briefly in a cracking karaoke sequence (one which makes you wish the movie leaned more into its crime elements) but referenced a lot by the name of Tuo. Also, Luo references Wildcat’s murder while discussing his unnamed father’s death leading some viewers to mistake his dad for his slain buddy.
However, eventually Luo tracks down Wan to a shanty village where she is to perform at a club. While waiting for the bar to open, he stumbles into a nearby cinema, sits down in a screen, puts on 3-D glasses and then falls asleep. Mandy style, the film’s title card finally appears and the rest of the movie takes place in a Wong Kar-wai-inspired lush neon drenched village, a glossed up version of the place Luo lived as a child. There he goes from playing ping-pong with a charming chancer of a young boy who may be Wildcat to reliving a meet cute with Wan, moving between other figures from his past all in one take.
Unlike the version that will screen at the East Asia Film Festival, my screener copy was not in 3-D. However, even so, it’s a truly breathtaking technical marvel of a sequence that helps add an emotional layer to an often puzzling movie. The viewer comes to realise Long Day’s Journey is not about the mystery, it’s about Luo and Wan’s relationship. Just as Luo is about to connect with Wan in the real world, he takes the time to re-live their past in his mind, perhaps because he is scared about what will happen next.
Long Day’s Journey will not be for everyone. But for those hungry for something genuinely innovative and unique, seek out Bi Gan’s latest. Seeing it is like waking from a hazy dream where the details are vague, but the feeling it evoked stays with you.