Long Day's Journey into Night - Review

Bi Gan’s second film is contemplative and time-obsessed, setting up a stunning 50-minute uncut sequence.

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A love requited, a town lodged in memory. Like Kaili Blues, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night examines themes of place and time. Following a protagonist pulled straight from film noir, Bi Gan crafts an experience worthy of re-examination, if only for its stellar 50-minute uncut sequence, shot in 3-D. This scene is crucial, but the surrounding film is an equally robust visual dive into the town of Kaili, a broken-hearted man, and his memories of another time.

Cinematography is the driving force of Long Day’s Journey into Night, so I hope you’re interested in it before watching. The film doesn’t trace narrow conventions like flashback, tailing, and memories of the past with seamless transition: it is often difficult to tell which timeline is playing out, and what characters are on screen. Are they past version of the themselves, or reflections of present problems?

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One sequence places Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) as a young boy, an unnamed girl resting on his shoulders. Stark red light casts a high shadow, and as Hongwu’s older self narrates an observation from his mother, his younger self eats an apple to the core. The microphone seems placed inside the actor’s mouth, every crunch and mush of the apple discernable in full, titillating stereo. Tears merge with the spill of the apple on the boy’s lip, giving the frame a wetness derived entirely from physicality. This scene, like many in Long Day’s Journey into Night, tells exactly what it’s going to do, and then executes it. It may be a noir, but the film does not achieve surprise with its revelations, but with a commitment to craft.

To lovers of Gan’s work, this should be no surprise. The mild beauty of Kaili Blues sits snugly next to Long Day’s, to the point where it feels like an intended improvement. In the film’s dexterous 3-D sequence, shots of characters walking up stairs or riding through tunnels on vespas last for minutes, often with no dialogue. The score is fantastic, but rarely present, leaving room for ambiance and location to take the reigns: as much as Long Day’s protagonist is controlled by the past, so is the narrative by the location: there are deep mines, dimly lit rooms with ping-pong tables and a neon-clad outdoor karaoke bar. Communicated in these areas is a sense of loneliness, of mass removal, the kind that would take place after an apocalypse or fatal disease. Gan has said in his commentary on Kaili Blues that the city is third or fourth tier, and the minimal activity in Long Day’s reflects that. It’s a loner’s paradise, spilling with empty hallways and street-vendors to haggle with. Without a sense of urgency, the blunt of the impact rests on location, and thankfully, the portrait is thoroughly convincing.

Like a young Lars von Trier, Bi Gan is obsessed with the technical side of filmmaking. His stories are light, relying on established tropes and archetypes, yet watching his work remains a unique experience. They are shot wide, declarative and subtle in their announcement of place, and in Long Day’s, the camera tackles intimacy. With careful use of mirrors, close-ups, and blocking, several scenes play out with a Persona-like efficiency. Pivot up, pull focus, now the reflection is looking at the actor in the foreground; pivot, focus in, and the actress is looking at a reflection of the actor. It’s not showy or meant to draw attention, but there were a few girls in my theater who took full-flash photos of any scene involving the romantic couple in flashback, and they were always the more well-staged shots.

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Without diving into technical embarrassment, I’ll say that the 3-D sequence in Long Day’s Journey into Night is stunning. Not for any one reason: it’s shot like the rest of the film, with slow intention, but there is an element of whimsy that comes with the jarring change in visual tone. Hongwu enters a movie theater to wait for the club that houses his long-lost mistress to open, and the screen goes black. For the first time, a blinding white title card bearing the name of the film appears, and the audience is cued to put on their 3-D glasses along with Hongwu. Without cutting, the sequence follows him through a tunnel, down a ski-lift-like apparatus, around the spiraling streets of Kaili, and into the air for a flight sequence, without a noticeable cut.

The camera illustrates time, the real hour taken to arrange the movements of the actors, but also the underlying theme of the film; time is reflected everywhere, whether literally through inquisition into the location of Hongwu’s mistress, or in identity-blurring flashback. By shooting the final hour of his film in real time, Bi Gan forces the protagonist to move at his pace, and wait. The 3-D doesn’t pull you out of the experience, but makes it real, makes time real for Hongwu as well as the audience so that we can experience the moments together. When the film ends on a strong narrative beat, a firecracker sizzling in a vase, there’s a sigh of relief, but also a shock in realizing we weren’t able to put it out ourselves.