Sunday, August 4, 2019


Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (no relation to Eugene O’Neill’s play, as reportedly its Mandarin title more closely translates to “Last Evenings on Earth”) is as dazzling as it is baffling. It is interior to the point of near abstraction in its opening hour, a jumble of exposition and unintuitive narrative connections as scenes abruptly cut and collide. I found myself using its long silences to not simply groove on the imagery and absorbing sound design, but to try to retell the story to myself and check my understanding. It’s non-chronological in a way that frequently, resolutely refuses to help its audience put the pieces together. A man (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown because his father died. It makes him think of a friend who died many years ago. He meets a beautiful mystery woman in a green dress (Tang Wei, probably best known in the States for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). She is the mistress of the man who killed his friend. This is many years ago. They have an affair. Now it’s years later. There are other women: a sister, a lover, a mother, a fraudster, a singer. Gan gives us flashes of dialogue, circular scenes shot through with pauses and swooning camera moves that steadily paint in poetic filigree: rain down a windshield, curls of smoke from a dangling cigarette, a fruit reflected in a rippling pond. Gan, a talented 30-year-old director, in only his second feature, following his debut Kaili Blues, is startlingly assured as he once again presents us with his inspirations worn obviously on his sleeve in an overt, cool cinephile style — not exactly a bingo card reference spotter, but a fine synthesis of good art house taste. One can catch strands of David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the loose surrealism and straight-faced reworking of genre tropes in enigmatic ways. Here a standard noir setup is scattered and fragmented, the better to feel like a broken man rattling through painful snatches of memory. One can also spy, in its elegiac languors, a touch of Tsai Ming-liang, especially Goodbye, Dragon Inn, as it similarly wanders, circling locations from different angles, and finding inspiration in the movies, making a theater a central location. In murmuring voice over, our lead tells us movies are better than memory, because movies are always lies, while memory is the one playing tricks on us.

How wonderful, then, that Gan takes a leap out of this fragmented noir and into cinema in a cinema. Our lead falls asleep in a rundown theater while wearing 3D glasses and we enter his dream. It’s also in 3D, which Gan uses to orient us in a procession of spaces: a cave, a pool hall, a village square, a gate — varied depths and frames extended in ways only the extra dimension can. It is enveloping in ways that reminded me why we were all so taken with this new 3D a decade ago. What’s beguiling about this dream — filmed in a single unbroken take that lasts an eye-boggling hour to end the film — is how it takes the abstraction of its opening expository half and recontexualizes these inscrutable scenes and oft incomplete dialogues into sleepwalking symbolism. Stray comments, revelations, and conversations open up new emotional and visual possibilities —torches, ping pong, fruit, karaoke machines, a gun, a folk tale, a firework — as they circle back around very much like the brain reworks a day’s or a life’s stresses into dream logic. Suddenly, what felt simultaneously thin and obscurant — if undeniably beautifully photographed and inhabited, especially mesmerizing in scenes like the one in which a quietly weeping man in uninterrupted close-up eats an entire apple in real time — uncovers layers of meaning and portent as the film nods off into a lyrical and contained dream-space, tracing the surrealist architecture of its setting intuitively in flowing ways where the “real life” story resists interpretation and chronology. By the end there’s a sense of an experience that’s uniquely cinematic, and theatrically cinematic, for that matter. I doubt it would play as well if you stream it in 2D in the comfort of your own home. It’s a film that works best if you’re trapped with it and within it, enduring it, puzzling over it, resisting it, even, until it quite literally opens up news depths as its hypnotic final hour-long shot flies by as quickly as its opening 80 minutes are slow.

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