I’ve seen Bi Gan’s epic Long Day’s Journey Into Night, three times already; primarily just to get this review correct. At each screening, I was warned that the film’s storytelling is unorthodox, somewhat dreamlike if you will and that I should appreciate it for its visual style over its narrative. The obvious question is whether or not an audience warning is appropriate, designed to sway your feelings about the film like a case of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”
The film’s protagonist is Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), whose life is at a virtual standstill after meeting, stalking, falling in love with, and losing the mysterious and beautiful Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). The film is broken up into two halves. The first half are scenes from the past of Hongwu’s first encounter with Qiwen: their meeting, their night together, and the revelation that she’s married to a crime boss. This narrative is intercut with Hongwu’s search today for Qiwen as he pieces the clues together about her whereabouts. The film’s overly noir tone is overlaid with Hongwu’s commentary on the subject at hand of loss and regret. Honestly, it took the third viewing to figure out that the scenes with Qiwen were all flashbacks.
“…Hongwu’s first encounter with Qiwen: their meeting, their night together, and the revelation that she’s married to a crime boss.”
As warned in the beginning, the visual style is impressive and artistic. Gan likes to use long establishing shots to set the scene’s tone masterfully using location, lighting, and camera movement. Most scenes are single takes with slow-paced dialogue, and his camera is often in motion. One scene follows Hongwu and Qiwen in a train tunnel. Hongwu and the camera are in his truck following Qiwen slowly as she walks. It happens all in one shot as the camera is set inside the vehicle and eventually moves smoothly off the truck and ending with a wide shot the two characters.
Gan pretty much ditches a traditional narrative in favor of a series of coffee-table-photo-like sequences. There’s an odd shot of Hongwu approaching a beauty salon, and from outside you see the salon proprietor playing a game of Dance Dance Revolution to the Vengaboys “We Like To Party.” As final proof of this whole art film thing, we see Hongwu pondering how when men experience great stress, they will eat a whole apple including its core. Now cut to a whole scene of a young man eating an apple…whole.
The second half of the film is a dream sequence involving Hongwu and Qiwen and told in a single 59-minute sequence in 3D following Hongwu and Qiwen through a small town. It starts in a mining cave (as a callback to a story in the first half), where Hongwu has to beat a young boy in ping-pong and then follows Hongwu’s chase after Qiwen through the city. At times, the camera “flies” from one location to the next and it also appears to constantly be in motion. There’s a definite appreciation that this single shot could be pulled off and feel more natural than feel like a stunt.
“…give up trying to figure out a narrative and resign yourself to quietly sit back and enjoy its visual beauty.”
Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of these films that you have to see if you love filmmaking as an art. There just comes the point where you give up trying to figure out a narrative and resign yourself to quietly sit back and enjoy its visual beauty. The single shot 3D sequence is something you just need to experience for the sake of experiencing it. Huang Jue and Tang Wei both give compelling noir performances; incredibly angsty with the right amount of dark sadness, but specifically Huang Jue plays Hongwu as troubled and lost, yet never feels mopey or crosses the line of overacting.
In the end, while I did struggle to follow its central narrative, Bi Gan has my admiration as a filmmaker, though I was hoping it would be a little more profound as it was artful in the end. He connects with you from an emotional standpoint. This is what I call a specific recommendation for audiences that like art/experimental films. To the general audience, you’ll walk away with the question, “what the hell was that?” An exact quote from the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018) Written and directed by Bi Gan. Starring Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Chen Yongzhong.
7.5 out of 10 stars