Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns home to the Chinese city of Kaili, 10 years after he abandoned Kaizhen (Tang Wei). His return reminds him of his late friend Wildcat, and inspires him to find Kaizhen once more.
Bi Gan made a big impact back in 2016 with his artful debut feature Kaili Blues. He returns to the the southeastern town of Kaili for his second film, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and has developed all-new and inventive ways to capture his audience’s attention and keep them entranced by what they find there. This is superb cinema, but it is also a form of filmmaking that expects the viewer to help with the heavy lifting. It can take a while for the film to click into perspective, but when it does settle the emotional effect is profound. The film also broadly separates into two halves. The first is an excessively atmospheric contemporary noir, with Huang delivering archetypal narration about coming home, the woman who eluded him, and the death that still haunts him. Everything is soaked in water: the rain seems endless, roofs leak, and buildings flood. Flashbacks bring Luo and Kaizhen together, in what seems an effective but broadly very familiar set-up.
This first half does begin to stretch the patience just a little; something thankfully relieved by the arrival of the second section, which pays off immense dividends based on the imagery, symbolism, and characters already laid out. Luo waits in a cinema, falls asleep, and subsequently dreams a near hour-long single tracking shot in stereoscopic 3D. The visual texture renders this dream as more immediate and realistic than anything in the film that has preceded it. The use of the one tracking shot without visible edits gives the sequence a strong sense of space and avoids any of the sudden eye-straining shifts in focal length that can come from editing in 3D. There is a mild sense of surreality, but Bi keeps it subtle and easy with which to relate. The sequence is heavily informed by earlier events, as well as detail the audience has been told of Luo’s past, and that makes the slightly maddening first half a necessity for the second. The film starts entertainingly enough, but its entertainment value is definitely back-loaded: this extended climax is likely one of the most inventive and entertaining things you will likely see on screen this year. It also feels like an exclusively cinematic experience too: with 3D televisions out of production and no longer being supported, the only way to ever properly experience Long Day’s Journey into Night is going to be in theatres.
Tang Wei delivers a typically strong performance: she has been one of China’s best female actors for some years now, and it is always good to see her turn up on screen. As Luo, Huang Jue overcomes a lot of deliberate stereotype and pastiche to present a three-dimensional character. The story remains murky and elusive to the end, and there is a lot more here to inspire and provoke than to be explained or settled. It is a vivid, troublesome mini-masterpiece.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is playing at the 2019 Melbourne Film Festival on Tuesday 13 August 2019. For more information click here.