Nope, it’s not a Chinese-language remake of Eugene O’Neill’s daunting masterpiece about the disintegration of a family over a 24-hours period. In his second feature after 2015’s rhapsodically received Kaili Blues, writer-director Bi Gan, 28, takes you on a rapturous ride through the night that will knock you for a loop. Since the film’s heralded debut at Cannes last year, the talk has focused on the long, unbroken take that ends the film. Shot in 3D and lasting 50 minutes of the film’s 130 minute running time, the sequence brims with hallucinatory brilliance.
Set in Bi’s native city of Kaili, the film creates a dreamscape of fractured time frames and leaps in and out of reality. The atmosphere is seductively film noirish, as a man named Luo Hongwa (Fallen City‘s Huang Jue) recalls his affair with the mysterious femme fatale Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). Though he skipped out on her a decade ago, Luo can’t get the woman out of his head; he also can’t trust his own memories. That’s the cue for the film to flash back to the year 2000, showing us the two meeting at a secret location where they can’t be found by Wan’s ex-lover, the gangster Zuo Hongyan (Chen Yongzhong). The criminal’s presence poses a constant threat, while the sex scenes between Luo and Wan — a devil in a clinging green dress — charge the film. But there’s a far-away look in her eyes, however, that adds more pieces to the puzzle.
As Luo goes off in search of long-lost love, Bi meticulously tracks his journey through false leads and dead ends, including the murder of their mutual friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi). The atmosphere, often neon-lit, grows thick with menace; water drips from ceilings and walls (a constant motif) as Luo travels into the hills and a finds a village dotted with the ruins of another civilization. There’s also a movie theater, which our hero enters. On screen is a 3D film, which prompts him (and us) to put on 3D glasses.
And from that moment on, Long Day’s Journey into Night plunges us into a surreal vision of a mind unmoored. With the help of art director Liu Qiang and three cinematographers, including Mustang DP David Chizallet, the filmmaker achieves visual wonders as Luo walks through a dark tunnel, plays an impromptu game of ping-pong, hops on a scooter and then zip-lines into town where Wan may or may not be hiding.
The sequence is a prodigious technical achievement, though audiences can’t be blamed for feeling emotionally disengaged. Based on the book by Roberto Bolano, the script — cowritten by Bi and Taiwanese author Zhang Da-chun — offers frustratingly few clues to solving the enigma at its core. Yet the movie pulls you in through the sheer immersive force of its filmmaking. In Long Day’s Journey, the search is everything with meaning as elusive and haunting as a dream.