Don’t come to Bi Gan’s latest film Long Day’s Journey Into Night expecting a story about an Irish family headed by a tightwad actor and a morphine addict, because this film shares only its (approximate English-language) title with the well-known Eugene O’Neill play. Also don’t come expecting a conventional rom-com or date movie, as apparently a number of Chinese movie-goers did, thanks to a perhaps misleading marketing campaign. Do come if you want to see a beautifully shot, languorously paced 133-minute film that is often deliberately obscure and demands great patience from the viewer. Come, in short, if you’re up for a film that is just about as arthouse as any film could be.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is more mood piece than conventional narrative, and more concerned with exploring how people experience memories than in telling a straightforward story. The central character, Luo Hongwu (Huange Jue), has returned to his home town of Kaili (also the director’s home town) after his father’s death. While there, he finds himself revisiting his old haunts, which inevitably trigger memories of his past, including a romance with Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), a confrontation with a local crime boss (Chen Yongzhong), and the murder of his friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi).
Those elements could make up the plot of a conventional film noir, but here they serve as the material for a meditation on memory and forgetting. In fact, it’s frequently not clear if what we’re seeing is something that happened, or something created or transformed in Luo Hongwu’s mind, or a pure reflection of his subconscious made apparently concrete. And perhaps the difference is not worth worrying about, because as Luo tells us in an early voiceover narration, memories are partly true and partly made up, but movies are all fiction.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night has scooped up quite a few awards on the festival circuit, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Film Score, and Best Sound Effects at the Golden Horse Awards (roughly speaking, the Taiwanese equivalent of the Academy Awards), and a nomination in the Un Certain Regard section (which often features nontraditional approaches to film) for director Bi Gan at Cannes. The technical aspects of this film are definitely its strong point, and director of photography Hung-I Yao’s mastery of low-light photography is particularly impressive.
This film also includes an amazing (and already much discussed) sequence that lasts almost an hour and appears to be a single take; for technical reasons it was shot in 2D then converted to 3D in post-production. Although I can’t vouch to the effects of viewing it in 3D since I screened this film on my computer, word has it that it’s amazing. But don’t mourn if you only have access to the 2D version: while this film may be even more impressive if you see this film in a theatre with 3D capabilities, but it’s also highly effective without it. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is certainly not a conventional film by Hollywood standards, but it succeeds very well on its own terms. | Sarah Boslaugh