LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
80 minutes of some of the more artful, emotionally-intuitive filmmaking that 2019 had to offer versus 60 minutes of pure clunking ego.
2018 PRC/2019 USA
Written and directed by Bi Gan
Long Day's Journey Into Night is famous for one thing, and infamous for another. The infamy came out of its release in mainland China on New Year's Eve—well, New Year's Eve as defined by the Gregorian Calendar, which they celebrate, too, so December 31st, 2018—which had been presaged with an enormous and incredibly disingenuous marketing campaign that had sold the film as a heaving epic romance. It was China's must-see date movie, timed to end at midnight with a big kiss on the screen and a million littler kisses out there in audienceland. Now, it is not not a romance. It does end with a very passionate kiss. But, as must have become extremely obvious to everyone in the crowd very quickly, what it mostly is is an art film, one that's fairly aggressively-arty even for the art film format, and while it's been sold in the West as the most financially successful thing to ever come out of the Chinese arthouse, it was only successful at all because a lot of poor rubes got tricked into pre-purchasing tickets to an opening night event that, I'd wager, probably put a lot of people in a mood bad enough (or maybe just sleepy enough) that they didn't feel like kissing anybody anymore. Three weeks later, "can't understand Long Day's Journey Into Night" was trending on Chinese social media and the box office had flatlined. I'm probably supposed to find this amusing, but personally I think it's just plain shitty, and its maker probably should have apologized on behalf of his distributors, though I'm sure he never did. In any event, it arrives on our shores with more honesty in its intentions, if still under a Rotten Tomatoes composite review that reads "Long Day's Journey Into Night may flummox viewers looking for an easy-to-follow story, but writer-director Gan Bi's [sic] strong visual command and technical risk-taking pay off," which more-or-less sums up everything I've ever said about film critics and toxic condescension.
Because it is not hard to follow this story, and I have suspicion that when "can't understand Long Day's Journey Into Night" picked up steam, it wasn't the "what" that really confused anyone, because as oblique and fragmentary as it is, Long Day has about two plot beats and they'd be hard to misinterpret, given that it also has a voiceover narration that basically explicates them out loud: it is the story of Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a middle-aged man living in an advanced state of dissolution, whom we find prompted to return to his hometown of Kaili in Guizhou, where he sullenly hopes to find the woman he once loved, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). As Hongwu tries to track her down across the impoverished crapulence of inland China, he remembers the desperate affair they had when they were young, which played out under the nose of her gangster boyfriend (Yongzhong Chen), and which was never likely to go well. So if the "what" is simple enough—a neo-noir with substantial overtones of Wong Kar-Wai in narrative and a whole hell of a lot of overtones of Wong Kar-Wai in aesthetic—what that leaves is the "why," as in "why did Bi Gan make this the way he did?" and the most obvious answer is "to show the fuck off."
That at least gets us closer to what the film did to earn its fame in the positive sense, and the thing to understand about Long Day is that it is very much two films welded together at about the middle, both of which inform one another, and one of which is, to my mind, just objectively superior to the other. But, because I apparently cannot be on-consensus for damn near anything, I'm in the minority when it comes to which rough half of Long Day actually is "the good part," and I'd say it is very clearly the first, which is the kind of art film so old-fashioned and straightforward in its attitude that I'm not sure they ever really made that many of them, especially beyond this film's most blatant influences, particularly In the Mood For Love. Basically, what Bi is doing in these first 80 minutes is using Hongwu's go at being a detective as an excuse to explore the structure and textures of decades-old memories, and to explore the act of dredging them up in the present—especially as the act of memory applies to a man who has no hopes, so far as we can tell, for his future, so that any scrap of joy he can find lies in his past, even if it's stained by failure and death and loss.
This is played out within a fragmentary and not-entirely-trustworthy "narrative" that foregrounds mood and yearning at the expense of plot or total sense-making, though it is also very obvious about what it's doing, in almost exclusively good ways—for example, when Bi walks us through some half-recalled version of Hongwu's youthful courtship of the fair Qiwen, he does so almost totally with a pair of actors who are 45 and 40 years of age, respectively. (In fairness, I suppose this is only obvious with Huang Jue; Tang Wei might've starred in Ang Lee's porno more than a decade ago, but still looks about 22.) Somehow, it gets even more obvious than that: Bi's movie about memory is absolutely enthralled by the thematic and visual possibilities of reflection, translucency, and obscurity, often shooting through panes of glass or against mirrors—there's one terrifically complex little shot of nothing much at all, just Hongwu's dead childhood friend's mother (Sylvia Chang) screwing around with an aerobics video or something while Hongwu tentatively approaches her shop, that uses both. But I don't know if I've ever seen a more absurdly obvious collection of overborne visual symbolism than in the shot that creeps up behind Hongwu's shoulder as he removes a keepsake from the back of a broken clock (the keepsake itself being a photograph of a woman with a hole burned through the face), whereupon the camera shifts to the left to the reflection of the clock in a puddle of water, as Hongwu literally turns back time. I mean, good fucking grief! Nobody was ever flummoxed by this.
But, as I said, to my mind this is all to the good; better yet, it's captured in some really sterling photography from a trio of cinematographers doing their best Christopher Doyle, albeit with a glinty digital edge. (In point of fact, I don't know who did exactly what on this movie; likely as not, the first, good half probably did have a single cinematographer.) The film populates its images with both bold, saturated colors and tremendous texture—an emotionally significant green gress popping against beige and grey brick, blaring neons in darkness, the omnipresent motif of water and light reflecting off water—and combines them with subdued, whispered dialogue and a meditative pace, and the miracle is it really isn't boring, but consistently intriguing, as it captures the melancholy and nostalgia of what's been lost and pins itself to Hongwu's subjectivity even in the "realest" scenes. It never exactly insists upon itself as anything more than time slipping through its hero's fingers, and yet, maybe even by accident, it does start to pick up momentum as the past starts to catch up with the present, and a genuinely exciting noir plot threatens to batter its way into Hongwu's recollections.
Instead, we get nothing of the sort. Bi sends Hongwu to a movie theater, and, with the drop of the film's title card slightly more than halfway through its runtime, signals the audience that it's time to don their 3D glasses and enjoy an entirely different show. (Needless to say, I only saw it in 2D. Maybe it made a difference, but I sincerely doubt it.) This provides a blindingly bright line which, of course, divides the first part of Long Day from its second, but, more to the point, separates "Bi Gan's very successful bid to make a soulful art melodrama in the vein of the Chinese masters of years past" from "Bi Gan's annoying and immature demand to be recognized as a cinematic wunderkind from the Chinese sticks right now, God dammit." Deciding that the extremely long tracking shot in his first feature Kaili Blues (Long Day being his second) was going to be his calling card, Long Day's final hour was expressly designed to one-up his previous effort, and this is where the three-cinematographer team evidently came in, as Hongwu is implied, by way of a slumbering dream, to have entered into a symbolic, cinematic representation of his past being redeemed and his hopes being restored, as captured in one of the most technically sophisticated long takes in film history.
And it's just not very good.
It is, to be sure, impressive. Hongwu's dreamscape turns out to be enormous (the dream starts in a mine, and winds up traveling down a road to a village with a pool hall and a karaoke stage and a whole lot of steps, as well as a version of Tang Wei so alienatingly distinct in her styling—her costuming, her hair, her makeup, even her performance—that I reckon it as the only thing in the movie that's ever even close to actively confusing). It also turns out to be replete with symbols that the first half of the movie has primed us to unpack, if we felt like, though pretty soon you mainly just feel like it being over: it's curiously underwhelming in terms of its choreography, which seems like it ought to be impossible, considering how much damned choreography obviously went into it. But by about five minutes in, it's shown its hand, with the lamest ping-pong challenge possible, and at some point thereafter—if not before—the sheer presence of the camera, as weightless and as elegant as it is, winds up being very keenly felt as it continually captures a not-very-interesting, stilted, and simultaneously over- and under-designed dreamworld. I mean, just take a look at the hyperstylization of Birdman or even Rope: the former cheats, and the latter's clumsy even for 1948, but both feel like they were doing something with their long-take format. My best guess is that Bi wanted to contrast the anything-goes flow of a fantasy with the unreliable fractures of conscious memory recovery (there's a line somewhat to this effect in the narration), but it seems this would have obliged him to have done something remotely fantastic with his fantasy.
So it feels like watching somebody play a sandbox video game adapted from a poem, and it wasn't even a terribly good poem. Meanwhile, the too-muchness of it all means that Bi and his army of DPs just had no ability to match the preciousness of the first 80 minutes' aesthetic in any but the very slightest ways. It at least has the decency to end extraordinarily well, leaving us on a passionate embrace that then tracks carefully towards the most emotionally-devastating piece of symbolism in the whole hyper-symbolic picture—I want to be clear, it is the last forty-five seconds of this film alone that ensures it anything even like a pass—but there was never any reason on Earth for Long Day's Journey Into Night to have needed a solid hour to get there, except the fame-chasing ambition of a director to get people talking about his strong visual command and his technical risk-taking, which you'll hopefully agree is an outstandingly weak rationale for a film to be dragged out to 138 minutes when it had always been at its strongest when it was about, you know, something fucking human.