Punch drunk on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the last scene in Long Day’s Journey Into Night shows Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei) and Hongwu Luo (Huang Jue) kissing as the camera pans 360 degrees. Often these allusions signal no more than the filmmaker’s awareness of them; Bi Gan, however, uses cineaste memories of Hitchcock, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jean Cocteau and the Andrei Tarkovsky of Stalker as punctuation and hand rails, adding depth and offering reassurance in a heady and often mad two-hour-plus meditation on the scope of desire. Moreover, the writer-director takes an awful risk: he shoots half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 3D to give these sequences the texture of a dream. Even riskier: a continuous 3D tracking shot, recalling another Hitchock film (Rope) but with greater emotional satisfaction.
The “dream” half of Bi’s film is clearer than the “real” one, which proceeds on misdirection, aphorisms (“We can’t survive unless we live together under the stars”), blankly profound dialogue, and verbal cues with odd emphases closer to a Henry James short story. Lim Giong and Chih-Yuan Hsu’s twang guitar score adds to the geographic dislocation. Audiences must pay attention. The connective thread is Luo, a casino owner reconstructing a relationship with, in another nod to James, a woman he may or not have hooked up with or even known. Her name might be Qiwen Wan, or it could be Kaizhen; Lust/Caution‘s Tang Wei plays her as a femme fatale, an enigma in emerald. This approach to the material gets wearying; only male directors still abstract their male leads into holy spirits of lovelorn melancholy, pledging their troths to women too ineffable for dimensions and feelings and stuff (Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, to which Long Day‘s also owes a debt, at least allows Maggie Cheung a point of view). Accept Long Day’s Journey Into Night as a vision quest and it makes sense in retrospect.
Stick with it, though, and the film has a severity belying its hallucinatory material. Not long after Luo falls asleep in a theater (shot upside down, let me add) we’re in the darkness of a cave with him, greeted by a boy wearing the skull mask of a buffalo or cow. He’s lost. Are we? Perhaps a knowledge of the descent into the underworld in Cocteau’s Orpheus is another handrail. They play ping-pong. Never mind about a name: he suggests Luo call him Ping-Pong Superboy. They ride a motorbike to a funicular (Bi follows the pair’s descent as if watching animals mate). As noted this sequence, a tracking shot approximately an hour in length, makes demands on the audience that Bi for the most part realizes. When Kaizhen/Quiwen (re)appears, the film has built to this moment. (Full disclosure: I screened a version without the 3D; Bi’s visual command is such that I felt satisfied).
Three years ago Bi released Kaili Blues, set in the southeastern Chinese city, in which he demonstrated his affection for filming actors on motorbikes and those 360-degree pans and characters profess confusion about the line between dream and reality. A day after screening Long Day’s Journey Into Night I thought the debut the superior film; having watched Kaili Blues again I saw a director learning how to shape scenes, how to avoid dawdling (and failing). His talents and weaknesses fuse beguilingly in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “Do you know you’ve been talking in your sleep?” Kaizhen/Quiwen asks. Avoiding an oneiric tone because it betrays the rigors of dream-life, Long Day’s Journey Into Night inverts the Michael Stipe lyric: life, it complicates dreams.