China Box Office: Art House Film 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' Nabs Record $15M in Presales

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'Long Day's Journey Into Night'

Bi Gan's slow-burn noir features a 59-minute single-take shot, but that hasn't stopped young filmgoers from buying up tickets in droves.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, the second feature from 29-year-old Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan, has nabbed $15.5 million in presales at the Chinese box office — an unprecedented feat for an art house film.

The feature, which opens Dec. 31 in China, wowed but divided critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

A highly stylized, phantasmagoric noir, Long Day's Journey Into Night follows a forlorn hero as he wanders the ruins of a provincial Chinese town in search of a former lover. Daringly, the film switches from 2D to 3D midway through its recursive story, concluding with a 59-minute dream sequence shot in a single take.

The film's many art house references and unbridled stylistic ambition have predictably stimulated discussion in cinephile circles, but it's hardly the sort of material that usually goes blockbuster at China's commercially driven box office. 

Bi Gan's feature debut, Kaili Blues — a similarly heady journey through a character's memories of a rural town — announced the young director as a talent to watch on the international festival circuit. But the film generated just ($870,000) RMB 6 million in sales at home in China.

Long Day's Journey Into Night has no direct connection to the Eugene O'Neill play with which it shares its title. The movie's original Chinese title, however — which translates as "Last Night on Earth" — appears to have everything to do with its phenomenal marketing success.

The film's backers, which include Huace Film & TV, have pitched the film to China's youth as a special opportunity to enjoy "the last night of 2018" in the company of a significant other. Many of the opening-night screenings are scheduled to start at 9:50 p.m., so that the film ends at exactly midnight. An early post from the film's official social media accounts suggested that viewers should "spend the most important night of the year with the most important person in your life — with a kiss." 

A later social media spot, accompanied by an image of the two leads locked in a kiss, read: "I ask you one last time, would you go with me on New Year's Eve?"

This was followed by yet another, saying: "If you go with me, I will make at least one of your wishes come true" (again, kiss imagery).

Aside from marketing savvy, Long Day's Journey Into Night consisted of a big step up for Bi in terms of star power and production expertise (the film's budget hasn't been disclosed, but presumably there, too). Tang Wei (Ang Lee's Lust, Caution) stars as the film's long-lost love interest, while Taiwanese screen icon Sylvia Chang plays a small but key supporting part. Huang Jue (The Final Master) is the gritty and enigmatic male lead. Much of Bi's crew on Journey was made up of industry veterans known for work with established auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin) and Wang Xiaoshuai (Chongqing Blues).

Over the past several years, a niche but sizable market for art house cinema, both local and international, has emerged in China. But Bi's prerelease haul of over $15 million is unprecedented for its genre by any local standard.

Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Shoplifters, for example, earned a news-making total of $14.1 million in China over the summer (dwarfing the film's $795,000 million in North America).

Jia Zhangke, China's preeminent festival filmmaker, also has never hit such heights. His latest release, the gangster drama Ash Is Purest White, earned a career-high $10 million in China in September after premiering in competition at Cannes. Jia's only other feature to make it to cinemas in China was Mountains May Depart, which pulled in $4.3 million in 2015.