Some viewers may be inclined to suggest that a better English title for young Chinese auteur Bi Gan’s sophomore feature might be “Long Film’s Journey Into Obscurity,” but while not literally inaccurate, that would be selling the film short, so to speak. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”—which has nothing to do with the O’Neill play (the original Chinese title would translate as “Last Evenings on Earth”)—is unquestionably ponderous, self-indulgent and opaque, but also an engrossing example of cinematic virtuosity, ending in a protracted single take that will become the stuff of movie lore.
In terms of genre, the picture is a film noir, which begins with world-weary protagonist Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) ruminating about his unhappiness as he awakens in a seedy hotel room with a prostitute. After leaving, he continues to discourse in voiceover about the emptiness of his life after losing his girlfriend, the beautiful Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), the moll of a crime lord (Chen Yong-zhong). Returning to his family’s restaurant after a long absence (which, Luo says pointedly, was named after his mother), he finds that his father has died, and discovers a picture of the woman in the workings of a broken wall clock, a telephone number written on the back..
Luo’s dreamlike reminiscences about meeting and wooing Wan in 2000. His recollections of their furtive time together in an abandoned house are intercut with his present-day search to find her again. Interwoven are fragments involving the death of his childhood friend Wildcat (Li Hong-qi), who was involved in criminal activity in a tunnel, and Luo’s encounter with a mysterious woman (Tang) in a glistening green gown who calls herself Wan.
The second part of the film—introduced by the film’s English title card—consists of an hour-long dreamlike sequence consisting of a single tracking shot. It begins, after Luo asks an apparent madam in a ruined courtyard about Wan, in a movie theatre where he and Wan spent a great deal of time. There he puts on 3D glasses and apparently enters the place’s underground tunnels. There he encounters a boy, presumably a young Wildcat, who challenges him to a ping-pong game as the price of escape, followed by a journey on a motorcycle to a cable-car, on which Luo slowly descends to an outdoor stage where a series of singers are performing before a sparse audience.
Here he meets an abrasive young woman (Tang again) and, after a pool game with a couple of young would-be toughs, they make their way to a wrecked house—presumably the one where he and Wan made love long ago—and then to a locked gate where her supposed boyfriend is waiting for her. Luo forces the man to take her with him, but demands a gift from her in return—the broken wristwatch he’d previously given her.
This description of the film’s “plot,” based as it is on a single viewing, might not be entirely correct, and some may rejoice in pointing out a flaw or two. But that wouldn’t matter overmuch, because Bi isn’t primarily—or even really—interested in telling a conventional story. His emphasis is on mood, atmosphere and suggestion: he uses the noir template—as well as lots of allusions to other films—to consider such basic themes as the illusory (or insignificant) nature of time , the fluidity of chronology, and the difficulty of discerning a difference between “reality,” dream and hallucination.
It’s not simply that those ideas are conveyed stylistically; they’re embodied in the fractured narrative technique that Bi has chosen, abetted by Qin Yanan’s editing, which revels in digression (that found photo leads to a women’s prison, where an inmate has a long monologue on the power of stories only tangentially related to Luo’s search, and possibly misdirecting it, while in another case mention of sorrowful people eating apples introduces a sequence of a young man chomping on one). Such views are also specifically enunciated in bits of dialogue and lyrics that speak of “erasing everything,”, or being incapable of knowing whether a memory is true or not, or recognizing the power of storytelling that can conflate and confuse fiction and invention.
The effect is amplified by the deliberately off-kilter production design by Liu Qiang in which much is made to appear hazy and indefinite, and by the dizzying cinematography (in the first half apparently the work of Yao-Hung-I and Dong Jinsang, and in the second that of David Chizallet). Even in what appear to be static compositions, subtle camera movements lead to an unsettled feeling, and of course the long tracking shot that makes up the final section of the film is designed to keep one not just enthralled, but vaguely at sea.
In this context the actors are akin to props being moved around Gan’s cinematic chess board, but Huang strikes the right tone of grim weariness as Luo, and Tang distinguishes nicely among the various versions of the mysterious Wan. The rest of the cast do what Bi requires of them.
One can say that “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” represents triumph of style over substance, though it might be more accurate to observe that it is one of those films in which style is substance. Whatever the case, even if you are totally bewildered, even irritated, by it, you will probably find it difficult to resist its hypnotic spell.