Long Day’s Journey into Night follows both the journey of Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) for his lost love Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei) and his journey through a dream of his comprising the second half of the film. The result is a pulpy, immersive blend of Mulholland Drive and the films of Tarkovsky that announces director Bi Gan as one of a number of Chinese auteurs to keep an eye on in the coming years.
The two parts of Gan’s film are distinct in both their story and style of filming. Consisting of both the past and the present, the first half of Long Day’s Journey into Night is somber and languid. Luo is at the twilight of his life and his journey in searching for Wan is narrated through frequent voiceover. Provided only with a fragmented understanding of the relationship the two had, the most apparent feature we latch onto as the audience is the forest-green dress that Wan wears.
Her dress is one of a number of significant items that Gan imbues his film with, and his use of symbolism enhances the narrative even if certain audiences don’t have a breadth of knowledge about Chinese culture. Similarly, Gan’s strong influence from Tarkovsky, and in particular Stalker, doesn’t rely on audiences’ experience with the Soviet auteur to make an impact- a glass that wobbles off of a table as a train passes nearby feels just as strikingly relevant to Gan’s film as any other scene that doesn’t pay homage to the films of Tarkovsky.
The pacing of Long Day’s Journey into Night also recalls the late auteur’s work in that Gan takes his time exploring ideas relating to discovery, time, and memory- all themes relevant to Luo’s journey as well as the liberties Gan takes using non-linear narration and slow, measured camera movements. Enlisting three cinematographers to film Long Day’s Journey into Night, Gan’s use of framing will be challenging for any other director this year to match in quality. The camera pans over his scenes, revealing the set design piece by piece as we slowly gain understanding, only for the camera to often change the context of the scene by revealing a pivotal item or person as the scene progresses. Gan seems to enjoy using framing to limit what is revealed until we form some preconception, only to pull the rug out from underneath us.
As a whole, Gan crafts a fascinating mystery and doesn’t reveal the defining piece of the puzzle until about halfway through the film: memories are a mix of truth and lies whereas movies are entirely fictional. This reflexive hint sets up an exhilarating change in pace: Luo falls asleep at a movie theater and the second half of Long Day’s Journey into Night begins, consisting of a singular long take in 3D lasting almost an hour that occurs during the titular “night” of the film.
Despite a level of showmanship required to pull off a long take of this duration (and the fact that the take consists of what occurs in Luo’s dream), the second half of Gan’s film miraculously feels the most grounded. Gan believes that “3D images are fake but they resemble our memories much more closely”, and thus the linear storytelling and lack of editing can be taken as realism; that is, until Gan inserts the magical quality of flying into Luo’s dream. This inspiration from Marc Chagall can also be seen in one of Long Day’s Journey into Night’s posters, a black-and-white rendition of Chagall’s painting ‘The Walk’.
Through the dream sequence, we ultimately find closure to Luo’s search for his long lost love and come to a clearer understanding of the commentary on temporality and love that Gan conveys through Long Day’s Journey into Night. With the use of immersive and innovative filmmaking, Gan shares with us a bold effort that is surprisingly mature in style and intent for a sophomore release.