In 2015, Chinese poet/photographer-turned-writer/director Bi Gan put his stamp on arthouse cinema with his dreamily exquisite debut, Kaili Blues. The movie is a cinematic tone poem that eschews formulaic filmmaking in favor of a more sensuous experience. It evokes similar feelings as Tarkovsky’s Stalker (high praise) and is a beautiful movie that’s best known for an elaborately choreographed, but seemingly effortless 41-minute tracking shot.
Gan is back and his new film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (no relation to Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name) is also garnering much buzz for a long take. This one’s 59 minutes and it was shot in 3D. The rest of the film is 2D. I’m fortunate to live in a market that’s screening it in 3D (Houston), but many people, including my friends in Dallas, aren’t so lucky. Typically I’m not a fan of 3D, but this isn’t your typical 3D movie. Gan uses the third dimension in a similar manner as The Wizard of Oz uses color. Watching the 2D version is kind of like watching The Wizard of Oz without the transition to color. Gan uses 3D as a tool to enhance the dreamlike quality of that segment of the film, and it is highly effective. The 2D film is still great, but it’s not the full experience in all its glory. (Like Gravity in 2D.)
It must be said that Long Day’s Journey Into Night (in Mandarin with English subtitles) will frustrate some viewers for a variety of reasons, and others (like myself) will love it for those very reasons. The pace is slow by today’s and Hollywood’s standards, and while fans of directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien (one of Gan’s favorite filmmakers) won’t mind, much of the Avengers crowd could find it tedious. It moves at a glacial pace by comparison and really takes its time. In one scene, an actor consumes an entire apple–core and all–on-screen in real-time. (Several takes were filmed and they ended up using the first one they shot.) Gan is more concerned with how the story is told than how easy it is to digest, and the plot (a mystery about a guy looking for a girl from the past) can be difficult to follow. The movie jumps forward and backward in time, and Gan is more interested in evoking feelings and moods than providing logical narrative beats. Making sense of the movie is like trying to make sense of a dream.
If you can let go and go for the ride you will be rewarded with a tranquil cinematic experience. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a dreamy enigma of a movie in the vein of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Like Kaili Blues, Tarkovsky’s influence is felt and Stalker is directly referenced. I enjoyed the experience–both at home and in the theater–but I feel there is still more for me to grasp after two viewings. And that’s okay, I like it when I have to catch-up to a film or see it multiple times to wrap my head around it. I look forward to reading an analysis by somebody better versed in symbology and dream interpretation.
The film has impeccable craft. It’s framed, shot, and lit well. And that tracking shot… Is it a gimmick? Does it add to the film? Lets be real, a super long tracking shot like that could come off as a gimmick if it was done without purposeful intention, but the way Gan uses it (much like the 3D) it adds to the dream-like quality and provides a necessary contrast with the rest of the film. So, no it’s not a gimmick. It is a good marketing technique, however. “59 minute-tracking shot” is an attention grabber and that’s part of what made Long Day’s Journey Into Night the highest-grossing independent film in China’s history.
The shot really is impressive, especially in 3D. (Minor details of the shot to follow.) The main character, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), walks into a movie theater and puts on his 3D glasses–the signal for the audience to put on their glasses. That’s when the movie’s title screen finally appears (in 3D, 1 hour and 11 minutes into the movie!) and the score kicks in like a shot of adrenaline. It’s a cool moment. The blocking, choreography, and rehearsal leading up to the shot must’ve been extensive. It includes many closeups, lots of winding about in the dark, a ping pong match with a young man in a skull mask, a long descent from above, tricky billiards shots, and more. One of the reasons Gan wanted to shoot the scene in 3D is its extended depth of field and he utilizes it well in the aforementioned descent. At another point, I had the sensation that I was actually floating high above the ground.
The fact that even in Houston, the 4th biggest city in the US (soon to be 3rd), and home to a diverse population including a large Chinese contingent, the highest-grossing Chinese independent film of all-time is relegated to a 1-week run on 1 screen. That is not a great sign for cinephiles. That’s why we need to get out and support these films and keep this kind of programming alive in the city or risk being left out like Dallas and other cities who don’t have access to the movie the way director intended it, with all of its magical elements intact.
4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls with the potential to go up to 5 or drop to 4 after more viewings and analysis.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is now playing in Houston in 3D at AMC 30. Coming to the MFAH in July.
Kaili Blues is currently available to watch on the Criterion Channel.
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