Long Day’s Journey Into Night

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
"This is immersive cinema, designed to be experienced rather than just watched." | Photo: Bai Linghai

Just now, Bi Gan is the darling of Chinese cinema, the golden boy who can do no wrong. Making $40m on an opening weekend, in China, with an arthouse film, is no small feat. It seems inevitable that in a few years this fame will see him decried by many critics, because his work is undeniably gimmicky. He uses one visual trick after another and no longer has the excuse - as he did with 2015's stunning Kaili Blues - that he needs to prove what he can do. What compels him to approach his films this way? Is he just having fun? Two things excuse what might be unforgivable in a lesser filmmaker: every one of his gimmicks serves the plot, and when he's having fun, the audience is treated to a breathtaking ride.

The key to getting away with such excess is to leave the conventions of narrative cinema behind. Rooted in noir, Bi's second feature is more than usually obscure, dealing in doubles, dreams and psychic uncertainty. It follows a disconsolate man returning to his hometown (Bi's native Kaili) after the death of his father, but it is not his father's ghost that haunts him - it is the memory of a woman in a green dress (Tang Wei), whose image he has never been able to get out of his mind. Compelled to search for her, he finds himself caught up in a world of gangsters, peculiar rituals, strangers both friendly and desperate, and tangled strands of cinema itself.

Copy picture

"That's a movie star's name," says the man, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), when she introduces herself as Wan Qiwen. They're in a dank tunnel, late at night - this is a film riddled with catacombs, saturated with water that flows, drips or shimmers with reflected light. She's already told him to stop following her, yet she lingers as if there's something she wishes to communicate, as if her presence itself is an act of communication. Luo's fascination seems more that sexual. There is a sense of striving to understand, as if he can't establish which aspects of her being are real and which is imagination. Like a movie star she will seem to shift form, to become somebody else. By then he will need to follow her in order to try and understand himself.

There are obvious comparisons to be made to Lost Highway, and indeed there are little reference to this and other Lynch films throughout, whilst the shadow of Tarkovsky (and Stalker's dank tunnels) also looms large. Bi loves to play with mirrors and panes of glass, deliberately disconcerting the audience, making us uncertain about out own position relative to what we see. At first this feels jarring in the wrong way, distancing us from his vision, but bear with this film and you will find yourself drawn in. The first hour is all set-up, seeding visual cues and points of familiarity, giving us something to hold onto before the ride really begins.

It's in the second half that Bi really shows what he can do. Beginning, appropriately enough, in an abandoned cinema, he delivers an hour long single take which carries us through yet more tunnels, up and down stairs, plunges us off a clifftop on a flimsy cable lift and navigates a labyrinth of streets, in places adopting a magical realism that makes us wonder if Luo and his companion are actually in flight. It's dazzling in 3D but still remarkable without, and designed to do more with that red and green imagery than just create optical illusions, combining techniques to great effect. This is immersive cinema, designed to be experienced rather than just watched. Bi creates the sense that there is only a pane of glass between us and the events that we see.

Some Chinese viewers have complained that they were tricked into seeing this film - that they didn't know, when they took their seats, how strange it was gong to be. There have been protests as a result, but others have proselytised about the film and made vocal commitments to watching art films deliberately in future, a triumph few filmmakers can claim. One hears a good deal of "I didn't really understand it but..." and is left with a sneaking suspicion that Bi might not, strictly speaking, understand it himself. Perhaps there is no real solution to the mystery he presents us with; but who has ever been able to make sense of love?

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2019
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A man returns to the town of his birth 12 years after having committed a still-unpunished murder. Memories of the enigmatic and beautiful woman for whom he killed resurface, confronting him with unbearable revelations.

Director: Bi Gan

Writer: Bi Gan, Dong Jinsong

Starring: Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Huang Jue

Year: 2018

Runtime: 138 minutes

Country: China

Festivals:

Cannes 2018

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