Drama, mystery; not rated; 110 minutes; in Mandarin with subtitles; Center for Contemporary Arts; 3.5 chiles
Taking its title from Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name, director and screenwriter Bi Gan’s elegiac story of a search for lost love is a provocative noir fantasy. It’s a long, slow dive into the themes of memory and loss.
It bears no resemblance to O’Neill’s namesake play. But the title is apt. Long Day’s Journey into Night is like a rumination on the events of a lifetime and how, at the end of it, the darkness of sleep — or of death — overtakes us and our remembrances become fragmented and uncertain. All we are left with are the impressions of what came before.
As in Gan’s previous feature, Kaili Blues (2015), the story unfolds in the city of Kaili in China’s Guizhou province. The first half jumps from past to present in a confusing barrage of sequences. It follows a disaffected drifter, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), as he attempts to piece together the memories of a woman of whom he has only the vaguest impressions. Like a noir antihero, he relates his strange journey while puffing on cigarettes and trying to recall her clearly. But time itself appears to be unmoored, giving Luo — and the viewer — no solid purchase.
Luo moves through the mournful city, which seems, somehow, a reflection of his own state of mind, piecing together each new memory as they’re jogged by the people and places he encounters. There was a time, nearly 20 years before his search began, when he was in love with a woman who may have been named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). He lost her in the aftermath of the murder of his friend named Wildcat (Hong-Chi Lee) at the hands of a gang of criminals he was once involved with. Could she be the one? He’s uncertain of even her name.
The second half of the film is a remarkable piece of virtuoso filmmaking. A roughly hour-long, 3D tracking shot follows Luo on his quest. The sequence benefits from a more straightforward narrative approach, but the disorienting fragmentation of the first half seems to meet its match in Gan’s characterizations here. Everyone Luo meets has suffered some kind of loss or is missing some essential part of themselves. Kaili is a city tinged by sorrow and regret.
Everywhere Luo goes he’s met with obstacles, like a closed door or a blind alley, or with a deepening sense of a beckoning mystery; corridors stretch before him, seemingly without end. Long Day’s Journey into Night is like a dream that’s full of portent but offers no ultimate meaning, no aha moment. Is Luo’s odyssey a search for his own soul? As it makes such a proposition, you’ll fall in love with cinema all over again.