Bi Gan's ambitious dream-state noir immerses you in a world that is compellingly out of kilter with our own
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a film fascinated by dreams, memories, and the intersection of reality and our perceptions. It feels very fitting, then, that Bi Gan’s outrageously ambitious sophomore effort captures, in uncanny detail, the experience of drifting into a fitful sleep. As it opens, oppressive sound design forces you to hear every little background noise, from dripping taps to distant industrial work, yet as you slip deeper into its dream state, a gentler, more surreal atmosphere begins to take over.
A rather opaque plot (multiple viewings are likely required to fully decipher exactly what is going on) concerns itself mainly with the dreams and memories of odd-jobs worker Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang). He returns to his hometown for the first time in years after his father’s death and is struck by an obsessive urge to find his missing old flame Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang) after glimpsing a photo of her. For the first hour, Bi Gan moves seamlessly through time, as scenes of Luo’s investigation fade into his memories of his doomed romance. It takes a while to go used to, but the result is eventually hypnotic, even if the noir-ish story does sometimes get lost amongst the hazy atmosphere.
Though most of the press about Long Day’s Journey Into Night has centred on its second half – an hour-long dream sequence shot in a single take – this sequence only works so brilliantly thanks to the groundwork established during the film’s opening hour. Bi Gan floods his world and characters with little details that may initially only be mentioned in passing, but gain more and more importance as the film progresses. Long takes – only a couple of scenes have any edits within them – immerse you in Luo’s surroundings and headspace. You really are seeing the world through his eyes, and the film leaves it up to you to decide how reliable this set of eyes actually is.
Once the much-discussed dream sequence does arrive, it is almost immediately astonishing. Opening in an old tunnel through which Luo’s dream self is pushing a handcart, Bi Gan and his camera team cover so much ground that it’s impossible to not be amazed by the spectacle of it all. Luo plays in a ping-pong match, travels the moonlit streets by motorbike, descends a cliff on a zip line, and even finds an enchanted, spinning house, all of which plays out within a single take. Bi Gan doesn’t just rest on these technical laurels, either, but sprinkles his film with moments of beauty and thematic resonance.
Ideas and vague memories from the real world are brought to physical life, and – as the focus needed in the first half pays off in the second with dividends – there’s a deep satisfaction to be found. However, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is still a film to be experienced rather than understood or explained. The beautifully lit nightscapes of suburban China, not to mention frequent trips to karaoke bars where time seems to no longer abide by its usual rules, ensures this as a sensory treat hiding an irresistible air of mystery.Where to watch