Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019)
Written & Directed by Bi Gan
There are two starkly separated halves to this film. The first half is nothing too remarkable, some beautiful cinematography and a noir story that will feel very familiar, no real surprises. The second half is a shock; the visuals are the focus, yet somehow they still keep the narrative going. Bi Gan takes some significant risks in this latter section, banking his entire film on what could easily have just been a gimmick. Instead, he turns this into a remarkable feat, something rarely attempted in filmmaking, but Bi Gan sticks the landing.
The story is incredibly simple; if you’ve ever seen or read any noir detective stories, then the beats will feel familiar. Luo Hongwu has returned to the Kaili, a subtropical Southern China city. He’s come back for his father’s funeral, but this visit begins a walk down memory lane. Hongwu recalls his friend Wildcat, who was murdered and Wan Qwien, the woman Hongwu loved but abandoned. As he asks around for her, he learns she possibly had his child and has moved from place to place. Hongwu hears conflicting accounts of Qwien and who she is now, creating a strong sense that he wouldn’t even know her now if he saw her. Then Hongwu goes to see a 3-D film at a theater, and the movie suddenly changes.
The second half of the picture is a one hour sustained single-take shot. It will go down as one of those stunning moments in cinema, a director defying logic to create a technical achievement. The camera follows Hongwu on a cable car down to a village. The camera switches its focus, following different people. If you keep an eye on the background, you’ll see narratives weaving in and out of this one. What becomes clear is that we’re in Hongwu subconscious, a dreamscape for all the emotions that have come bubbling up. He meets a woman calling herself Wan Qwien, except her face, looks different and she is too young to be the woman he left.
The problem with getting to this sublime second hour is that the first hour is near interminably slow, fragmented, and disengaging. I am always a fan of films that play with narrative structure, but everything here has been done before and in better movies. The timeline and characters become so obscured that there’s nothing to connect with emotionally or thematically. What you have are very beautifully composed shots that add up to nothing.
It’s clear that Bi Gan holds Wong Kar-Wei has a significant influence. Both filmmakers take pleasure in long, slow, contemplative stories focused on their protagonist’s psychology. I find Wong’s films end up with more substance, though, and find a balance between cinematography and story. Bi Gan is clearly influenced by a host of sources, both cinematically and literary, but what is he doing with all of that?
I would recommend watching the second half of the picture, just to experience that impossible task Bi Gan achieved. As I work on building a filmmaking class for the 2020-21 school year, it was something that I used as an exercise. I looked for the tricks Bi Gan used to give his actors and crew time to arrange a scene, those magician’s secrets that helped pull this off. Don’t go into Long Day’s Journey Into Night, expecting an emotionally moving story, but you will get some gorgeous film technique to study.