Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)
Thinking of a series of dreams
Where the time and the tempo fly
And there’s no exit in any direction
‘Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes
Wasn’t making any great connection
Wasn’t falling for any intricate scheme
Nothing that would pass inspection
Just thinking of a series of dreams
With just two features and while not yet at 30 years of age, Chinese director Bi Gan is laying claim to being his generation’s finest director of sleepy cinema, following in the footsteps of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, and Andrei Tarkovsky. These influences are on full display in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has picked up raves and accolades at every stop along the festival circuit since it debuted at Cannes this past spring, and which comes to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas on November 12th courtesy of the Austin Asian American Film Festival. As a bigger-budgeted companion to his first feature, 2015’s acclaimed Kaili Blues, Journey replays much of that film’s approach and structure: a dreamy, fragmented opening half of mystery and tragedy set in the director’s hometown Kaili, followed by a full-fledged descent into dream in the second half, filmed in an audaciously long sequence shot. Journey has better technology (the hour long shot is in 3D, though the rest of the film is not) and bigger stars (Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang), but the idea is basically the same. It’s the Evil Dead II to Kaili Blues’s Evil Dead.
That’s not to say the films are identical. Kaili Blues was about an ex-con who now works as an assistant to a doctor and may or may not be a poet (recitations from his poetry book, called “Roadside Picnic”, fill interstitial moments in the story). The first half of the film concerns his, and our, discovery of various tragedies in the past and present: the doctor’s lost lover and dead son, the poet’s dead mother and wife and missing nephew. Certain objects and images take on totemic significance: clocks and watches, trains, a disco ball. In the second half of the film, he sets out to find his nephew but wakes up into a kind of a dream, a forty-five minute or so hand-held long take that tracks his journey around a village that straddles a river. It’s a run-down and quiet place, dominated by dilapidated brick and concrete structures, where the poet meets various young people, one of whom may be his grown-up nephew, another who may be his wife, while another may be the doctor’s boyfriend. The disparate details of the ambiguous, apparently directionless first half coalesce into a beguiling journey through space and time in the second. It’s a debut remarkable for not just its boldness — lots of young directors try the long-shot gimmick — but for its assured sense of place, narrative control, and visual specificity.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night improves on Bi’s debut in pretty much every way. A noir template gives the story a familiar structure, alternating between two timelines as a man who did something wrong is haunted by his past. Luo Hongwu, played by Huang Jue, returns home to Kaili after his father’s death. This reminds him of people he once knew: a friend named Wildcat who was murdered and a woman named Wan Qiwen with whom he had an affair. She’s played by Tang Wei, and always seems to wear the same lustrous green dress (one of the film’s several allusions to Vertigo). The two meet up in a blackened, flooded house, reminiscent of the weeping homes of Tsai Ming-liang (and Stray Dogs specifically). They plot to kill her lover, the local gangster who killed Wildcat. This is intercut with the present, where Luo is trying to find out what happened to Wan, whom he has apparently been estranged from for some time. Bi shifts freely from one timeline to the other, even, in at least one instance, within a single camera movement (a simple cue to help orient you in time: in the present Luo has gray hair and a goatee and in the past his hair is black and he’s clean-shaven). The present-tense scenes are generally matter-of-fact and realistic, while Luo’s memories of Wan are awash in the smoke and neon sexiness of Wong Kar-wai.
The second half of the film begins as Luo settles down in a movie theatre to kill some time. As he dons his 3D glasses, so do we and, more than an hour into the film, the title card appears. The rest of the film is the one single shot, beginning in the depths of a mine and eventually circling all through the town: an outdoor pool hall, a karaoke stage, the weeping house. Along the way he meets three people: a young boy who may be Wildcat and may also be his unborn son; a woman who looks like Wan Qiwen but who may not be her (also played by Tang Wei), or may be a less romanticized version of her; an older woman (played by Sylvia Chang, who had played Wildcat’s mother in the present) who might also be Wan Qiwen, one that aged beyond Luo’s memory of her.
Where Kaili Blues was about time, the confluence of past, present and future in the poetic imagination, Journey is about people, specifically dead people. The telling shot comes early, when Luo removes a clock (the key recurring image from Kaili) from a wall and replaces it with a portrait of his dead father. Luo is haunted by the people he’s lost, and he may be lost himself. The second half uses dream logic to try to help him come to terms with those losses, and with his actions in causing them. His journey is through a kind of Purgatory in search of escape — he and the three people he meets are all locked or caged in in some way. He may not ever find the way out.
While Long Day’s Journey Into Night shares much in common with Kaili Blues, it doesn’t seem like Bi is simply spinning his wheels. Rather, it seems like the more finished version of the story he wanted to tell the first time out. It proudly flaunts its influences, borrowing freely from Bi’s cinematic idols (including another blatant nod to Tarkovsy’s Stalker, the film that convinced Bi to become a filmmaker). It’s a step forward, but it also seems like the film he needed to make to get this story, and these influences, out of his system before moving on to newer, fresher material. I suspect that he has and that Bi Gan will ultimately prove to be one of the most important directors of the 2020s.