More than just its 59-minute 3D long shot gimmick, Bi Gan’s dreamlike drama is a delightfully challenging, exhilarating work of cinema.
“Once you know you’re dreaming, it becomes an out-of-body experience,” Luo (Huang Jue) says early on in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He could be saying it to another person, to himself, thinking it, or not putting the words together at all. That doesn’t matter here. It truly is the thought that counts. Not reason, continuity, and definitely not understanding—at least not beyond associative logic. Despite its bevy of inspirations, Bi Gan’s film is so beautifully realized that it’s hard to pin down to any such label.
One could talk about how it uses droning ambience like Andrei Tarkovsky, or its still life takes that elicit tension like a Chantal Akerman film. Even the most obvious comparisons, like as the warm-blooded love synonymous with Wong Kar-Wai, are as accurate as they are reductive in a way. “The difference between life and movies is that movies are false,” Luo declares later. Fiction may exist in Bi’s world, but sensation is what binds it all together.
Depending on the viewer, the story varies from supplementary to completely irrelevant. It’s all about texture here, but the stringy muscle holding it together concerns Lou’s return to his hometown of Kaili for his father’s funeral. He fled the area years prior and lost his one true love, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), in the process. Now he’s trying to reconnect with her.
Bi makes no real attempts to hide the emblematic nature of all his characters, playfully boxing them into concepts. (“Wan Qiwen? Sounds like a movie star’s name,” Luo says while asking for her whereabouts.) Meanwhile, he traces around like the neon-lit city, casting himself in the kind of role often seen in old noirs and slinking through some underground crime rings.
To call it esoteric would be an understatement, and while its most accessible moments could have felt pedantic in comparison, Bi soon paints that as part of the texture. Long Day’s Journey Into Night seems to pride itself on flummoxing audiences that look for solid ground to rest their feet on. Bi isn’t even aiming for idiosyncrasies here; that would require more literal or figurative cohesion, after all.
It’s a beautiful brainchild, an homage that’s both heavily indebted to everything before it and a creation that often feels fresh.
Be it water or smoke, the camera captures the most intimate moments—interpersonal or spatial—with some sort of visible membrane to refract most momentum. (The use of water is specifically reminiscent of Stalker, with which the film shares several aural, sometimes ASMR-inducing motifs.) The cinematography from Hung-i Yao, Jingsong Dong, and David Chizallet is entirely in sync with the director’s vision too, often to the point that it’s surprising Bi didn’t shoot it himself.
Add in the carefully refined color grading and a score from Chih-Yuan Hsu and Giong Lim and the final product is so devoid of gaps—be they aesthetic or tonal—to almost uncanny extents. But Bi never loses sight of his atonal humanity, flirting with grandiosity but never jumping the shark. It may be an amorphous film, but it somehow manages to accrue its own structure as it goes on.
For most of its 133 minutes, the world of the picture seems to exist without any particular boundaries or established reality, only hinting at its surrealism through dialogue and camerawork. Once it reaches its final hour—and dives into a heavenly 59-minute tracking shot—it continues to frame itself not just as an ode to the human experience, but also as a reflection of life through the screen. Credits, music, and even the sound effect of the Wild Bunch logo at the start all get their own reprises in one way or another.
When the lights come up and the journey ends, it’s hard to say just what Bi gave the viewer. It’s a beautiful brainchild, an homage that’s both heavily indebted to everything before it and a creation that often feels fresh. Savor it. Dive into its wrinkles and swim in its sulci. Aside from some pacing issues, it’s a half-remembered dream to behold.