By Yun-hua Chen.
Very few films can capture the feelings of a dream in an audio-visually mesmerizing way. What Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch achieved in their cinematic portraits of dreams and dreaminess is unparalleled, and now we can also comfortably add the young Chinese director Gan Bi to the list. Watching Long Day’s Journey into Night under its intricately designed 3-D format at the annual film festival “Around the World in 14 Films,” which handpicks gems from festivals for the audience in Berlin, was a real treat. Not only daring to be technically experimental and narratively innovative, the film also remains true to Bi’s auteurist signature and adheres to the arthouse aesthetics relating to the lineage of of Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
In this labyrinth of dreams and within the network of free temporal and spatial associations of Bi, the male protagonist Luo (Huang Jue) is intrigued by a mysterious woman in a satin green dress (Tang Wei) who chain smokes, and their past and present seem to be entangled in the vein of film noir as well as being reminiscent of Bi Gan’s previous debut film Kaili Blues (2015). Like Kaili Blues, it is difficult to talk about narrative here because each character is a phantom from the past and the unborn self at the same time. Dream logic is never linear; memories, hallucinations, and imagined realities manifest themselves as dreams, and vice versa.
It is yet another love letter from Gan Bi to his home town Kaili, like Kaili Blues, which was a huge success in film festival circuits. His gaze wanders between those dimly lit rooms, humid tunnels, abandoned coal mines, grey prison buildings converted from factories, a stretch of hills, a local gig in the town square, a dingy pool parlor, a cable tramway carrying people in a bucket – all with tender affection; his camera sometimes swirls around a desolate corner with a half-broken mirror, and other times tracks the back of a character while they advance in a tunnel or on the make-do cable car. Under green shades and yellow hues inside the predominant darkness, Kaili becomes the locus of lost memories, forgotten dreams, and an abandoned past. All this was made possible thanks to extreme acrobatic skills and corporeal flexibility of Bi Gan’s team of cinematographers (including David Chizallet, the DOP of Mustang, and Jingsong Dong, the DOP of Black Coal, Thin Ice) who constantly engaged the camera in unexpected turns, spinning and flying. They also executed the impressive one-shot sequence in the second half of the film (all in 3-D) and transformed the camera, which was sometimes placed at eye level and other times observed from a bird’s-eye view, into an additional oneiric character.
The 3-D experience is truly unique here. By using it midway into the film, exactly at the moment after the character of Luo puts on 3-D glasses in a dilapidated small cinema, 3-D becomes a way to enter deeper into a dream and a trance, instead of purely rendering the cinematic experience visually more spectacular. Going beyond the purely representative level, the 3-D images immerse the audience in the unknown and the mystic. This self-conscious transition from 2-D to 3-D also highlights the use of technology as an artefact and breaks down the illusion of a more “real-looking” 3-D world.
For a filmmaker whose entire repertoire of two feature-length films is set in the same place and shares the same strong auteurist style, the comparison between the two is hard to avoid. Several self-reflexive and at times heavy-handed self-references make Long Day’s Journey into Night look like a continuation of Kaili Blues; Luo enters a hairdresser’s parlor where running water is cut off, which is what Chen experiences in Kaili Blues; the surrogate father-son relationship between Luo and Wildcat is evocative of the bonding between Chen and his nephew in Kaili Blues. In fact, Long Day’s Journey into Night has moved upscale from Kaili Blues, as Bi went from making an independent film with a small budget of around CNY 200,000 to an international production involving renowned companies such as CG Cinéma and Huace Pictures with a budget which is estimated to be 500-times bigger. Bigger budget brings bigger stars; well-known stars such as Tang Wei (who is highly recognizable even by non-Chinese audiences, thanks to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution ), Silvia Chang (an award-winning director and actress whose recent performance in Mountains May Depart  and Shuttle Life  is still fresh in our memory) and Huang Jue (an acclaimed actor in China) took up lead roles, whereas household names such as Ming Dao and Xi Qi cameoed in their guest roles. Compared to Kaili Blues, which features convincing performance of an entirely unprofessional cast who have been recast for minor roles here, Huang Jue and Tang Wei, despite their brilliant performance and creation of those lyrical In-The-Mood-For-Love moments, are too glamorous for the story. Their undisguisable urban demeanor struck a jarringly note in the local rural surroundings of the Tier IV city, and their delivery of vernacular dialogues sound somewhat contrived.
A cinematic journey into deep dreams but also a poem, Long Day’s Journey into Night drifts between different levels of realities, consciousness, temporalities and virtualities to tell a smouldering noir love story. Towards the end of the film there appears to be some intentions of bringing together those seemingly incomprehensible loose ends which have been scattering throughout the first half. This is where Bi’s two films take different paths. Whereas Kaili Blues is perfectly content with fluidity and ambiguity, almost like a crystal with intertwined threads of present and past, and the tangible and the untangible, Long Day’s Journey into Night’s attempt to bring full circle to Luo’s journey feels like Bi’s artistic compromise to accommodate commercial demands and the higher stake coming from a higher budget and a much longer list of producers.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.