Dreams and nightmares occupy the same space, morphing in and out of each other as you sleep. The dreamer never quite knowing how or when the horrors will manifest in what seems to be an otherwise pleasant dream. And while Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” never devolves into being a bad dream, one feels it constantly teetering upon the borderlands of a waking death, of the terror of a cold, dark night.
This is my third Gan film, following the overlooked majesty in his sophomore feature, “Kaili Blues.” While “Kaili Blues” more or less seems situated in the real world — with a singular moment that, if I recall correctly, alludes to some manner of time distortion — “Long Day's Journey Into Night” not only bifurcates itself between the past and the present (a separation of, hypothetically, two decades) but also drops itself almost completely out of reality and into the underworld.
With impossibility would I fail to mention the oft-remarked feature of the film — the final scene being a 59-minute true long take, with no hidden cuts, beginning initially at the 71-minute mark with the long-overdue title card and the wayward, "detective" protagonist finding himself in a theater, donning a pair of 3D glasses as a way to signal the audience to do the same, as the final sequence is not only presented in a single unbroken take but as a 3D experience as well. Sadly, however, local theaters did not screen this film, and the only way to experience the scene in 3D is on home video.
Gan is clearly a student of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, telling vaguely-defined romance stories that are often backdropped by the crime world, as well as a devolution of time. Yet while Wong Kar-wai often accentuates his frame with swift-cut editing and peculiar lenses, Gan favors lethargy and a slow-moving camera fitted with basic lenses, often panning in 360-degree patterns and sustaining lateral tracking shots.
The narrative itself is deceptive and evasive, keeping its enigmatic plotting in the realm of obscurity. But perhaps a microscopic sense-making of the story is folly to begin with, for Gan's meddling with dream, memory, and nightmares would only dare us to find the plot amid the disorientation. With delusive simplicity, the story follows Luo Hongwu, greying in hair, as he returns to his hometown in Kaili following the death of his father. His return brings back memories of a long-dead friend and a lost love, both ostensible victims of Kaili's gangsters.
Though unrelated to playwright Eugene O'Neill's “Long Day's Journey Into Night,” it would seem director Gan adapted the single-day conceit, with the present-day portions of the story beginning in daylight and ending in the dead of night — not to mention the film's namesake portends that it is the "day's" journey into night just as much as it is Hongwu’s.
Similarly, there may be a partial adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, especially as the final section of the film feels like we are thrust into the underworld where souls of the dead (including characters that may or may not be Hongwu's son or a reincarnation of his dead friend, his red-haired and estranged mother or the doppelgänger of his lover) indirectly taunt the living.
Likewise, something may be said with the thematic reasoning behind the signature long take, in that it flows like a river — the River Styx, the waterway connecting the dead and the living. Perhaps there is no greater signal of the film world's falsehood than in the final shot, a seemingly infinite sparkler still shedding fire when previous discourse between Hongwu and the "doppelgänger" dictated the impossibility of its perpetual kindling — as well as the fantastic spinning of a house following the recital of a book's passage.
There may be something to be said about the film's treatment of narrative, with the misappropriation of the dead friend and the criminal underworld, that these story threads feel underdeveloped, but Gan is more concerned with the headspace of memory as seen through a prism. A deliberate misplacement of story. And while the film's amorphous impreciseness may deter some, this is still a trip down the rabbit hole that feels altogether unique and transportive.
At the midpoint in the film, just before the momentous long take — where our hero puts on the 3D glasses, the cut-to-black into the title card, later remarking about how he woke up in an empty theater in a haze of confusion, in a world that may not necessarily be his own — perhaps it is Gan's way of telling us that cinema is magical and otherworldly.
And the best part about that notion is that he is not only telling you how beautiful cinema can be — he is about to show you as well.