Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Critics have at long last realized that the development of Chinese art house cinema over the last decade has been deeply influenced by American and European film noir. The influence probably goes back further, and, for what it’s worth, film noir as an aesthetic idea is so deeply imprinted on film theory that it seems hardly worth mentioning. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has nothing to do with the O’Neill play, is drenched in both the mood and the attitude prevalent in classic film noir, and thus comes across as a kind of primer for what Chinese art cinema has turned into. The fact that it was something of a hit in China shouldn’t really be surprising.

As with a lot of underworld-set noir, the plot is twisty, even if close attention to detail doesn’t necessarily reap any special rewards. The movie’s time line moves fitfully back and forth between the present day and the year 2000 without being clear about the shifts. Luo (Huang Jue) has returned to his hometown of Kaili, where he once ran a gambling den, in order to attend his father’s funeral and decides to track down an old lover, Wan (Tang Wei). Bi makes the copious flashbacks to that relationship seem like dreams in that their narrative logic springs from an entirely different sensibility than the one that governs the present-day story. Though both strands take place mostly at night, the ruminations on the past are decidedly darker, overshadowed by what feels like a depressive state of mind. This feeling comes from the gradual revelation that Luo and Wan were planning on escaping their dead-end town to Macau, a scheme that apparently didn’t work out.

What happened in between isn’t clear, but it doesn’t seem to have been very good. Luo has mostly drifted, the residue of missed opportunity curdling in his brain like spoiled milk, which is why his desire to see Wan again becomes an obsession. The noir elements become acute as he follows the usual shamus routine, visiting a friend of Wan’s who is now in prison, seemingly a victim of Wan’s fickle behavior, sidetracking to a former colleague who gets caught up in his own memory of gangster deals gone bad. All the while Luo smokes countless cigarettes and looks at the ground. A little of this goes a long way, and when the movie enters its famous 60-minute single take—in 3-D, no less—as Luo’s journey really does take him deep into a night that seems artificially rendered, the sense of contrivance becomes almost too much. It’s mesmerizing but confounds whatever linear plot development Bi has accomplished up to that point—as if he’s abandoned the movie he started and cultivated so carefully for a kind of free-form experiment. It’s successful in and of itself, but leaves the viewer confused and frustrated. Only people who are prepared to be impressed probably will be. The rest of us would rather know what happened.

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (3-D, 03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Picadilly (2-D, 050-6861-3011), Ikebukuro Humax Cinemas (2-D, 03-5979-1660).

Long Day’s Journey Into Night home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Dangmai Films Co., Ltd., Zhejiang Huace Film & TV Co., Ltd. – Wild Bunch/ReallyLikeFilms

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