The young Chinese director Bi Gan is no stranger to long takes. It was in his debut, Kaili Blues (2015), where the filmmaker used the technique to deliver a 41-minute eye-catching sequence shot through an old village in rural China, in which he follows his characters on motorcycle rides, walks through houses and street markets, and even on a boat journey.
It is with Bi’s sophomore film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, however, where he and a team of three listed cinematographers (Yao Hung-I, Dong Jinsong and David Chizallet) take things to another level.
The film, which was hailed as one of Cannes’ best this year and was seen by this critic in the International Competition of the the Geneva Film Festival, is surely not to be missed — not only for the experimental desire that Bi shows and masters in the second half of the film, composed of a 55-minute single-take 3D sequence, but also for his attempt and success in providing a cinematic exploration of the human relationship with memories, lost loves and dreams.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s plot may be presented in a simple manner, though its narration adds complexity as it unravels mysteries. Told in part as a crime story, the film follows Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a man who returns to his hometown of Kaili for a funeral but whose fixation for a lost love, a woman named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), leads him to an investigation where questions add up by the minute. The same cannot be said for the answers.
The neo-noir atmosphere of Hongwu’s journey will appeal to lovers of the genre. There are mysterious objects (a photograph with a telephone number hidden in the back of a clock), old acquaintances reluctant to revisit the past and plenty of beautifully lit dirty streets where colours and steam wrap the protagonist on his ill-fated quest through the mining town located in the province of Guizhou.
Though Hongwu’s search takes up most of the film, it’s not with its own complications. “Fragmented memories, are they real or not?,” says the main character in a soothing narration, as if he was telling the audience to be prepared for the writer-director’s non-linear path. While Hongwu advances on his pursuit of Wan Qiwen, Bi makes some intrepid and sometimes confusing cuts where past, present, reality and fiction intersect with each other without warnings. For a film like this, a second viewing will surely be gratifying (and maybe required).
In a way, the premise is just the antechamber that one has to see before entering the main room. Even the main titles, which appear approximately at the one-hour mark of the movie, suggest that. Furthermore, viewers are instructed that the 3D glasses should be put on only when the “hero” of this story does the same. Fortunately, the moment is more than clear as one sees Hogwu deciding to take a rest from his inquiry by entering a cinema (before falling asleep).
It’s at that point when Bi delivers one of the most impressive cinematic feats of 2018. The 55-minute single-take 3D sequence is simply an astounding work of technical and narrative beauty, with wondrous production design and a unique use of camera work (which involved steadicams, zip-lines and drones) that explores tunnels, a whole village and even “flies.” Through the dream-like path that Hongu and the audience enters, Bi explores some of the previous themes established in the first half.
It could be argued that the divided nature of the film, clearly split in two different sections, could be detrimental to one searching for resolutions. However, the magic that Bi and his team conjures up with the project as a whole can leave one fully enchanted. It’s been reported that the standout sequence was achieved on its fifth attempt. Honestly, that in itself is impressive, along with the leap the Chinese director has taken to become one of China’s most interesting cinematic voices.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which premiered at the “Un Certain Regard” section of 2018 Cannes Film Festival, recently won three awards at the Golden Horse Film Festival, including Best Cinematography. Kino Lorber will release the film in the U.S. next April.
Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.