‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ from China’s Bi Gan, is mind-blowing masterpiece
The dream sequence has long been a staple of the movies. You could even say that the movies are dreams, captured and preserved for keeping — a form of communal tale-spinning best shared in the dark. That said, the hourlong, single-take 3-D shot that closes out Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is the closest the movies have ever come to how a dream actually unreels in the mind of the dreamer. The effect is hair-raising — a secret language we all speak that has somehow been brought into the light.
Languorous and enigmatic, “Long Day’s Journey” is the very definition of art cinema, and it will baffle and possibly enrage casual filmgoers expecting such niceties as plot. It is a movie not to be followed but steeped in and ultimately surrendered to. (Despite the title, there’s no relation to the Eugene O’Neill play; the film’s Chinese title translates as “Last Evenings on Earth.”)
Bi takes the components of the film noir thriller — a lovelorn detective unearthing old mysteries, a friend betrayed, a mysterious femme fatale — and recombines them in a spirit of poetic puzzlement. The hero, Luo (Jue Huang), has returned to his home town of Kaili, in south-central China, to bury his father and learn what has happened to the gangster’s girlfriend, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), he fell in love with while trying to save his reckless childhood friend Wildcat.
Bi, whose 2015 debut, “Kaili Blues,” plays like a warm-up to “Long Day’s Journey,” takes this classic genre and positions it somewhere between Bogart and Beckett, anchoring modern-day sequences of Luo navigating the post-industrial landscapes of his birthplace with flashbacks to his moody, bruised assignations with Qiwen in an abandoned house, the rooms filling up with the waters of memory.
The pace is hypnotic, the visuals beautifully ravaged, the story line flickers in and out. I would not recommend catching this after a heavy meal. At a certain point, Luo tracks his lost love to a dive in another city — ostensibly a karaoke bar but other pleasures can be had — and is told to go see a movie while he waits for Qiwen to turn up for her shift. He settles into his seat, dons a pair of 3-D glasses — as do we — and then the movie proper begins. Or the dreaming. Or both.
I can’t speak for you, but my own dreams tend to unfold on darkened nighttime stages, with cryptic buildings receding into shadows and events sometimes ending abruptly and at other times flowing willy-nilly into each other. Usually there’s an urgent goal to achieve — someone to save, a place to get to — that keeps being sidetracked in the labyrinth of the sleeping mind. Dreams are unsettling, unstoppable, and yet there’s often a logic within their illogic. This is precisely what Bi has re-created in the final hour of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a fluid and outrageously extended camera shot that, as with dreams, doesn’t need editing to cast its spell.
Luo finds himself on a mining railway deep in a mountain that somehow dead ends in a cabin. Doors turn into maps turn into ping-pong tables, and figures from waking life reappear in new guises, including a boy who may or may not be the hero’s childhood friend. The action takes place in what feels like eternal night, with the 3-D cinematography imparting a sense of vast spaces just beyond the edge of sight.
I’ve seen “Long Day’s Journey” in both 2-D and 3-D versions; the former is acceptable but the latter provides the otherworldly edge that can make an audience feel as if it’s experiencing something wholly new yet weirdly familiar. (Thankfully, the Kendall Square will be showing a 3-D print.) If nothing else, a sequence in which Luo rides a long, slow zip-line down over an inky void that resolves into a village flyover is worth the trip.
But there is something else: a burned-out romantic fatalism that seeks and finds renewal in much the way a human body is restored by sleep. In his dream, Luo meets a cynical pool hall owner (also played by Tang Wei) who may or may not be a different version of the woman he has been seeking and who joins him on his nighttime travels, airborne and otherwise. At its aching heart, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a love story, and it knows we use both dreams and the cinema to rearrange our memories and set them spinning the way we secretly hope. You may carry the echoes of this indefinable masterpiece long after you’ve awakened from it.
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
Written and directed by Bi Gan. Starring Jue Huang, Tang Wei. At Kendall Square. 138 minutes. Unrated. In Mandarin, with subtitles.