Tag Archives: B-

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (DI QIU ZUI HOU DE YE WAN)

Producer: Shan Zuolong
Director: Bi Gan
Writer: Bi Gan
Stars: Tang Wei, Huang Jue, Sylvia Chang, Li Hong-qi, Chen Yong-zhong and Luo Feiyang
Studio: Kino Lorber

B-

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.

JT LEROY

Producer: Patrick Waklsley, Julie Yorn, Thor Bradwell, Cassian Elwes, Giri Tharan, Mark Amin and Dave Hansen
Director: Justin Kelly
Writer: Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jim Sturgess, Diane Kruger, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Courtney Love, James Jagger and Dave Brown
Studio: Universal Pictures

B-

Perhaps the greatest literary hoax of recent years, the creation of a pseudonymous author called JT LeRoy was the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” a few years ago. That film, however, told the tale entirely from the perspective of Laura Albert, the San Francisco woman who invented JT—supposedly an androgynous, HIV-positive teen who’d been abandoned in California by his mother, a West Virginia truck-stop prostitute, and told his own story in captivatingly artsy prose—in the 1990s, publishing “his” books, “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” in 1999. The documentary was less investigation than apologia for the woman, whose deception had been unmasked in 2006. (She was later convicted of fraud for signing legal documents as LeRoy, but settled with the plaintiffs.)

By contrast the focus of Justin Kelly’s dramatization is Savannah Knoop, the young woman who impersonated JT in public appearances from 2001 on; the movie is based on Knoop’s 2007 memoir “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy,” and Knoop, the sister of Albert’s partner Geoff, co-wrote the script.

The result is no less a partial account of the JT LeRoy affair than “Author” was, though most viewers will find it more enjoyable, largely because of the starry cast. It begins in medias res, so to speak, when Savannah (Kristen Stewart) is introduced to Laura (Laura Dern) by Geoff (Jim Sturgess). The books are already out and while Laura has up till then been handling contact duties herself—portraying LeRoy on the phone—she needs to find a way to present her creation in the flesh to press and public, and nineteen-year old Savannah looks as though she could fill the bill. Photo shoots pave the way, but before long she’s dressing as LeRoy for press conferences, book signings and other appearances; but she mostly keeps her contributions to a minimum as Albert, adopting the persona of “his” flamboyant British manager Speedie, handles the questions.

There’s an air of abandon to these scenes, as Albert and Knoop take on incredulous reporters and adoring fans, one played by Courtney Love (who was actually one of the celebrities who joined the LeRoy bandwagon). The jaunty score by Tim Kvasnosky, with lots of tooting pipes, emphasizes the feeling that the whole charade is innocent fun, though there’s an unsettling undercurrent in the impact that LeRoy, as well as the story he tells, has on many readers facing the same sorts of trials that he supposedly had.

Moreover, just as “Author” served as a means for Albert to justify what she’d done, so Kelly’s film allows Knoop to do likewise. Savannah is portrayed as a young woman struggling to find herself at a crucial moment in her development, a struggle that included questioning her sexuality. While she is acting the role of a young man, she also is a young woman developing a relationship with a nice young man named Sean (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

But another possibility appears when Savannah and Laura travel to France and meet Eva (Diane Kruger), a European actress anxious to secure the rights to adapt a film from the LeRoy books. (The character is obviously a stand-in for Asia Argento, who would in fact direct a feature based on “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.”) Savannah is drawn to her, though the actress is interested only in the texts, not their author in a sexual sense.

Savannah’s journey of self-discovery is really the center of this film—an interesting story, but less about the entire JT LeRoy saga than about Knoop, whose life was clearly altered by her role in it, not simply in terms of her part in what became a literary scandal, but how it was a catalyst to her self-understanding. Stewart manages to convey the sense of Savannah’s personal journey in the quietly nuanced, understated fashion familiar from her previous work. It’s a subtle performance, even when Savannah takes on the admittedly unusual character of LeRoy.

By contrast Dern offers a wildly flamboyant turn as Albert, portraying her as a master manipulator whose ability to ride roughshod over others to achieve her immediate purposes defined her character: Savannah is the introvert used by the over-the-top extrovert Albert to fulfill her dream. Of course, in the process of succeeding in making people believe in the reality of JT LeRoy through Knoop’s imposture, Albert also lessened her own control of the situation—which, the films suggests, was a real irritation for her.

Sturgess and Kruger add to the film’s gallery of peculiar characters with nice supporting turns, and the crew (cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, production designer Jean-Andre Carriere, costumer Avery Plewes, editor Aaron I. Butler) work to give the picture vitality, though despite their best efforts it can get sluggish at times. And that score can be irritating.

But despite the title, this film isn’t so much about JT LeRoy: it’s as much an apologia for Savannah Knoop’s role in the con as “Author” was for Laura Albert’s. On those terms, however, it’s a moderately enjoyable account of one of the most flagrant literary hoaxes of modern times, especially because of the performances.