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Let’s cut to the chase: In Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Di Qiu Zui Hou De Yan Wan), the second feature from virtuoso Chinese director Bi Gan, there is a shot that will be talked about, at least in cinephile circles, for quite some time. Without spoiling too much — which, truth be told, is hard to do in this intricately narrated and technically mesmerizing work — just note that the shot begins sometime after the one-hour mark and takes up the entire rest of the movie, following its forlorn hero as he wanders the dreamlike ruins of a provincial town in search of his former lover.
Uninterrupted takes like this one have been done before, even for the length of a film (witness Victoria or Russian Ark). But what makes this 50-plus-minute sequence-shot here so special is how it blends depth-defying camerawork (Steadicams, zip-lines and drones are involved), exquisite lighting and production design — all of it captured in 3D! — with a deeply poetic style that recalls both Wong Kar Wai and Andrei Tarkovsky, tracking the main character’s gradual descent into melancholic bliss. This is bold and rare filmmaking that, even if it can test your patience at 130 minutes, deserves further exposure after its world premiere in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
The 28-year-old Bi came to the forefront with his 2015 debut, Kaili Blues, which already featured an impressive 40-minute take halfway through the film. Journey, which has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play — the Chinese-language title translates to Last Evenings on Earth, after the book by Roberto Bolano — is also set in and around Bi’s native provincial city of Kaili. Both movies are marked by a rigorous aesthetic that blends hypnotic camera moves with storytelling that is layered and splintered, jumping between past and present — between dreams, recollections, reality and a sense of time suspended (broken clocks and watches are a recurring motif here).
The script, which was written by Bi with Taiwanese author Zhang Da-chun, is not necessarily easy to follow and ostensibly takes on the guise of a film noir (the story was apparently inspired by Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, although Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past also comes to mind). In a very noirish opening, Luo Hongwa (Huang Jue, Fallen City) sits in a seedy, neon-lit hotel room reflecting upon an affair with femme fatale Wan Qiwen (Lust, Caution star Tang Wei) that ended more than a decade ago. “Fragmented memories — are they real or not?” he wonders aloud, setting the motif for a movie that forces us to constantly question whether what we’re seeing is happening right now, before or never.
During the first half — that is, before an opening title card breaks up the action at the 75-minute mark — Journey delves into the tale of Luo and Wan, who began their trysts in an abandoned house around the year 2000, eventually trying to flee from Wan’s gangster boyfriend, Zuo Hongyan (Chen Yongzhong). There’s another plotline involving the murder of their friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi), who somehow got in the way of all of this, although the brief explanations that Bi gives us seem far from conclusive and don’t really matter much compared to the overall mood he plunges us in.
Even before the spectacular second part kicks off, Journey is already marked by moments of visual splendor, with most scenes done in long takes as the camera roves along walls, across floors, above water and, in one memorable sequence, into the rain to track the lovers through their doomed affair. Credited to three lensers, including the Frenchman David Chizallet (Mustang), the cinematography is very much the main player here, forcing the viewer to watch the frame as much as they watch the actors. Art direction by Liu Qiang also plays a major role, reminiscent of the long-term collaboration between Wong Kar Wai and production designer William Chang. Indeed, there are parts of Journey that recall Days of Being Wild or In the Mood for Love, although this movie is both darker and more abstract than those Wong classics.
After piecing together the disjointed backstory, Luo embarks on a journey to track down Wan, landing in a village of ruins nestled in the hills nearby Kaili. There, he wanders into a movie theater — movies were the main thing he and Wan seemed to share besides sex — and, when he puts his 3D glasses on, the audience does the same.
Thus begins the extended nighttime finale, which finds Luo entering a dark tunnel and crossing paths with a younger Wildcat (Lui Feiyang). Is this a dream? Another film? It’s hard to tell, yet we go along with it, following Luo as he plays a game of ping-pong, embarks on a long scooter ride and then takes a zip-line down into town so he can roam the dilapidated alleyways in search of Wan, who constantly eludes him and may not even live there anymore.
All of this happens without a single cut, yet it’s only the first part of a take that keeps on going on going — all the way up into the air at one point — with Bi doubling down on the technical challenges holding half of his film together. Perhaps the craziest moment is when Luo wanders into an old pool hall and makes a bet with a punkish teenager who, if he messes up his tricky combination shot, would seemingly ruin the whole sequence. It’s a wager that only an uncompromising young auteur like Bi could make.
Alongside the superb camerawork, music by Lim Giong and Point Hsu adds a haunting touch to the action, especially when a chorus accompanies the characters as they make their way toward a finale that seems, in some ways, to take things full circle. Not that Journey ever gives us a real sense of closure, and Bi’s film is ultimately akin to the early image we see of Wildcat’s body being wheeled on a mine cart and pushed gently into the abyss, taking us on a slow and steady rollercoaster ride through memory, melancholy and movie magic.
Production companies: Zhejiang Huace Film & TV Co., Dangmai Films (Shanghai) Co., Huace Pictures (Tianjin) Co.
Cast: Tang Wei, Huang Jue, Sylvia Chang, Lee Hong-Chi, Chen Yongzhong, Luo Feiyang
Director-screenwriter: Bi Gan
Producer: Shan Zuolong
Executive producers: Sun Tao, Wan Juan, Shen Yang
Directors of photography: Yao Hung-I, Dong Jinsong, David Chizallet
Production designer: Liu Qiang
Costumer designers: Yeh Chu-Chen, Li Hua
Editor: Qin Yanan
Composers: Lim Giong, Point Hsu
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Wild Bunch
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