'Long Day's Journey Into Night' Astonishes With Technical Achievement

Apr 19, 2019
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This is FRESH AIR. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is the second feature from the Chinese writer-director Bi Gan. The film has been a critical sensation since it premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The movie features a nearly hour-long 3-D sequence as the story follows a former casino manager haunted by the memory of a woman from his past. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Bi Gan's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is the most magical movie I've seen in many a moon. It's a beautiful and sometimes baffling noir romance that borrows visual styles and motifs from filmmakers as different as Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Andre Tarkovsky. Its chief innovation however feels like something new - a 59-minute sequence shot in a single take and converted to 3D that stands as one of the great poetic and technical achievements in recent filmmaking.

To answer the obvious question first, this "Long Day's Journey Into Night" shares an English title but not a plot with Eugene O'Neill's classic play. The Chinese title translates more accurately as "Last Evenings On Earth," which is also the title of a short story collection by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano. Most of Bolano's stories are about solitary wanderers going on mysterious quests in Latin America and Europe.

The movie captures something of their restless lonely spirit even though it takes place half a world away in director Bi's hometown of Kaili City in Southeast China. A handsome divorcee named Luo Hongwu, played by Huang Jue, has returned home after his father's death. As he wanders the area with its rain-washed streets and rocky tunnels, he begins searching for a woman he loved long ago. She's played by the actress Tang Wei from Ang Lee's movie "Lust, Caution."

And whenever she appears - always wearing a green dress - we know we are lost in either a memory or a dream. You can sense the influence of the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai in the story's fragmented structure. Its themes of lost time and remembrance, and its seductive almost fetishistic attention to visual detail. He's also there in the protagonist's dreamlike voiceover which casts a veil of melancholy over every image.

But compared with Wang's movies, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" feels almost completely unbound by narrative logic. The first half flows from flashback to reverie to present tense reality, with little effort to differentiate among the three. Luo tells us more about his past - about a childhood friend who was killed years ago by a local gangster, and about a book containing a magic spell that, according to legend, could make your house spin.

How these details and symbols all fit together is a mystery the movie has little interest in solving. Director Bi knows that we sometimes go to the movies to lose ourselves. And getting lost can be beautiful, even pleasurable. About halfway through the story, Luo enters a movie theater and puts on a pair of 3-D glasses, which is the audience's cue to do the same.

Suddenly, we are transported alongside Luo into a dark cavern. He walks out, rides a motorbike some distance and zip lines down to a small village where several beguiling encounters await him. All this is captured in one seamless shot by a gently flowing camera that, combined with the effect of the 3-D, makes us feel as if we're floating through space.

Recent Hollywood movies, like "Gravity" and "Birdman," have made clever use of long travelling shots, achieved largely through editing and visual effects trickery. But "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is a much more analog, handcrafted affair, which makes its achievement all the more astonishing.

By all accounts, the shot was fiendishly difficult to plan and choreograph. And the effect is one of sustained tension and wonderment, like watching a metaphysical Rube Goldberg device play out for close to an hour. Details from the first half turn up mysteriously in the second - a piece of fruit, a karaoke performance and a beautiful woman who bears a striking resemblance to Luo's former lover. That's a clear reference to Hitchcock's "Vertigo," The greatest film ever made about romantic obsession.

The bifurcated structure of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is very much open to interpretation. I felt like I was being told the same story twice in two different-but-equally-moody registers of dream logic. In the first half, the ground is forever shifting under our feet as each new scene seems to reset the narrative.

The second half, with its unified flow of action, is easier to follow, but in some ways even more mysterious. There's something incredibly poignant about the movie's notion that the past is always with us, even as time just keeps on going and going. If movies are dreams, then Bi Gan never wants us to wake up.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times.

On Monday's show - in 2017, U.S. Navy destroyers collided with large commercial ships in two separate incidents in the South China Sea, killing 17 American sailors. We'll speak with ProPublica's T. Christian Miller, part of an investigative team that found chronic understaffing and other problems affecting ships in the 7th Fleet, which responds to threats from China, North Korea and Russia. Hope you can join us.

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