Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a massive 2018 box office success in China which confused the hell out of the date-night audience it was marketed towards, has finally limped its way over to a UK distracted by Parasite. Long Day’s mixes art house boredom with trashy noir tropes and 3D, single-take gimmickry, un-bottling a whole jumble of questions about how and why we watch long, ponderous movies when we could be watching something else. Jamie Limond wades in.
Trickling water and ping pong balls.
Walking down Fleet Street in 1888, W.B. Yeats was feeling homesick when he heard the tinkle of running water. Immediately transported back to the lakes and steams of rural Ireland, he rushed over to find nothing more than a novelty shop window-display of a ping pong ball balancing on a jet of water. From that reverie came The Lake Isle of Innisfree, his most famous poem. With its slightly laboured lyricism, the poem somehow falls short of the beauty and economy of the anecdote that inspired it. Which is a roundabout way of saying less is more. Similarly, there’s a school of thought that movies, even movies as Art, should be more Billy Wilder than Béla Tarr; two-and-a-bit hours long, rather than seven.
Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name) was a massive box office success in its native China. Most of those takings were on opening night, way back on New Year’s Eve 2018. The film was marketed as a romantic event movie, creating a backlash amongst disgruntled couples, the ‘confused by LDJIT?’ hashtag trending on social media. It’s only now wandering to the UK, two years later and in very limited screenings compared to the runaway success of Parasite, which has an unnecessary black & white version on the way.
But then Long Day’s is a far less accessible film. At 2 hours 20 it’s not a particularly long watch, but is made to feel way, way longer. The plot refuses to cohere. Characters wander around like sleepwalkers. Yet you cannot fault it. The boredom, the ennui, the emotional disconnect, even the obscure plot- all these things are on the one hand intentional, and on the other, essential to the story being told. What you end up critiquing here is the type of story, and that story’s telling itself. If you have a problem with this movie, it’s because you have a problem with these kinds of movies in the first place. You would be criticizing it on principle. Perhaps.
With that in mind, let’s dive in.
The first half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night tells the story of indeterminately middle-aged Luo Hongwu’s return to his hometown of Kaili, for his father’s funeral. While there, Luo (Huang Jue) tries to locate his one-time lover and the woman who haunts his dreams, the mysterious Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). Into the mix are thrown his childhood friend ‘Wildcat’ (Hong-Chi Lee), murdered 20 years before, and local crime boss, Zuo (Yongzhong Chen). We’re given very little in the way of concrete facts surrounding these people and events: Luo seems none the wiser as he tries to piece together what actually happened to his friend, or to his affair with Qiwen, and we’re left to piece it together with him.
The camera often lingers, or meanders off as past and present intercut; there’s a constant sound of water dripping or pouring, dappled light reflected from pools; it’s like trying to read a detective novel through an aquarium. But despite the artiness, the story elements are pretty much standard noir: she was his murdered friend’s girl, she’s with the boss now, they’re both in hot water. There’s even a quasi-noir narration as Lou plays detective.
Noir’s a genre that quickly became more about feel than plot. More about clothes and atmosphere, gestures and dialogue, than story. More about the weather. And from the minimalism of Jean-Pierre Melville to the irreverent Yakuza films of Seijun Suzuki, the quintessentially American, hard-boiled crime film got pared down and opened up as it travelled abroad. As Pauline Kael put it, writing on Godard’s Bande à part, it was ‘as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.’ Bi’s film is not so much about the poetry between the lines as much as it’s about the oblivion after the credits. Long Day’s is the day after the exciting genre film. Straightened out and given an ending, the plot would make enough noir-sense. They’d conspire to bump Zuo off and run away. Qiwen wouldn’t show. He’d be left standing at the station. Light a cigarette. Walk off into the night. Long Day’s is the day after and the day after that.
Luo is a character emptied of motivation. Like a ghost, he’s kept alive by will. He’s not just searching for Qiwen- he is the search for Qiwen. At one point we see a memory of them watching a movie together, with Luo sitting behind her, bored. She peels a pomelo fruit and cries at the melodrama on screen. Later we hear a story about Luo’s mother- she tells him that when people are very sad they eat a whole apple, core and all. The film cuts to Wildcat doing just that, his eyes red raw from crying. Perhaps it’s the night he dies (we know he was pushing a cartload of apples that night). It’s the second scene of people in tears eating fruit, compulsively, almost against their will. Luo’s ‘cry-apple’ is essentially the memory of Qiwen, as he re-treads and replays their brief time together, like a worn-out VHS.
The film itself is a kind of ghost, a memory of cinema. It’s partly to do with the affair between Luo and Qiwen being set in the year 2000: the year of Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love, whose visual style haunts the film (perhaps it’s the movie they went to see together, the one that made Qiwen cry?). It also plays into the film’s sense of overtiredness, and indeed, postmodern exhaustion. At one point Qiwen tells Luo she found out she was pregnant; he expects a boy, he can teach him ping pong; she tells him she had an abortion. Silence. “…People said the world would end in 1999. Now it’s the year 2000. And we’re still fucking alive’, Luo says. They look at each other. She puts her head on his shoulder. An apparent non sequitur- a mental leap from abortion to millennial blues- it feels real. It’s a tender moment.
Luo tells her to pack a bag, they’ll run from their troubles. A train pulls away outside, making a glass slide off a table. It’s a direct homage to the sliding glass in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), in that film a moment of transcendence. Here they blankly watch it fall. The scene cuts before it breaks. Pack all the bags they like, they’re trapped in the loop of dreams, lies and banalities. It’s a postmodern reference in a scene which literally discusses the condition of post-modernity, futures literally aborted. Listlessness, passivity, inaction. Seeing Stalker was a formative experience for director Bi, and the film quotes many of the Russian auteur’s obsessions- levitation, long tracking shots of water, submerged rooms. But that’s only one stream of references in a movie brimming with them. There’s a Karaoke scene with crime boss Zuo belting out a Cantopop ballad while taunting a strung-up Luo, which feels like a rerun of Blue Velvet’s ‘In Dreams’ sequence, or Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Blonde shimmying to Stuck in the Middle With You. It’s saved by the real pain and menace in Yongzhong Chen’s performance (oddly enough he’s Bi’s non-actor uncle), but the volume of quotations that pile up could easily tip the film over. Certainly, if a string of echoes was all it had to offer it might be totally objectionable. But then the second half kicks in, literally adding another dimension.
It starts straightforwardly enough, with two more trips to the cinema. Back in 2000 they plan to kill Zuo in a movie theatre; it’s dark, if Luo fires at the same time as the killer on the screen everyone will think it was a sound effect. It’s a hoaky old cliché of a plan. We see him with a gun to the back of Zuo’s seat, but we never find out if he went through with it. In the present, Luo tracks Qiwen down- she’ll perform that night at a Karaoke parlour-cum-rundown-prison complex that’s due to be bulldozed at dawn. He’s told to go relax at a movie theatre till the performance. He takes a seat, puts on 3D specs (we put on ours). The lights go out, he leans back. The title comes up: Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
1 hour 40 in and we don’t know if this is the end, a coda, or whether what came before was just a preamble, a prologue. Is this the film? Finally starting? Or a film within a film? The ponderousness of the first half immediately evaporates. It’s suddenly edge of your seat. Anything could happen.
What follows is a hallucinatory second act, the film’s attention-grabbing, 59-minute unbroken take, rendered in 3D for good measure. The title fades and we find Luo in a mineshaft, pulling a cart. Its lantern bobs in front of us. He encounters a boy in a mask. They play ping pong. The boy gives him a lift on his scooter. He gives the boy a nickname, Wildcat. He’s the first of many familiar figures and faces to appear in this dream-like version of the Karaoke-prison, a crumbling world of bricks and tarps lit up by fairy lights and slot machines. He even meets an alt-version of Qiwen: she’s a bit more ordinary, in bright-red trashy leather rather than green silk, a dyed-red bob. She’s a woman with a job; pool tables to run, a set of keys to lock up; Qiwen was a floating enigma.
Luo is in the place of dreams, where the departed are reunited, all is forgiven and all is forgotten. And yet the people here seem somehow more alive, more real. Even Luo livens up, as if suddenly awake, talking playfully with Wildcat, kicking out two louts from the not-Qiwen’s pool hall. Confronted with this dream figure, this potent if slightly skewed dream-world, it’s the fantasy of Qiwen than seems truly unreal, her dream-world doppelganger more vital and present. And that’s because the biggest swipe going on here is from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). It’s essentially the same story of a middle-aged man’s fantasy, a man in love with the idea of a mystery-woman trying to recapture the only thing that’s ever felt real to him. Like Luo, Vertigo’s Scotty haunts the movie’s locations, returning again and again, trying to relive the past. Qiwen even wears a distinctive green silk dress, like Kim Novak’s Madeline an incongruous apparition. The ending, with the camera spin around Luo and not-Qiwen as they kiss, seems to be a direct homage to the earlier film.
Long Day’s could almost be considered a companion piece to Vertigo. One of cinema’s sacred texts, there’ve been many more or less direct love-letters to it over the years. Famously Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) and particularly Sans Solei (1983), in which the director describes Scotty (but equally Luo) as ‘time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it, inventing a double for Madeline (Qiwen) in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him and from which he could decipher the indecipherable story’. More recently Guy Maddin was commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society to make a film about the city, instead turning in a ‘remake’ of Vertigo collaged entirely from found-film and TV footage set there. Maddin’s The Green Fog (2017) is somehow more moving, scarier, and definitely funnier than Long Day’s, getting right to the heart of memory’s maddening mix of potency and elusiveness. Cheesy daytime cop-shows, Chuck Norris and countless blink and you’ll miss them clips pass by, sometimes coming heart-stoppingly close to the audio-visual contours of Vertigo- a look, a gesture, a shot, or a glimpse of a location suddenly brushing past like a ghost. Equally, it’s a series of doubles and doppelgangers that pass by, inhabited by and inhabiting the roles of Scotty and Madeline in a never-ending cycle, as if the streets of San Francisco watch the same sad story play out day after day.
A big part of what movies can do that other art forms cannot is really pull-off the power of the ‘return’: of coming back to a location, repeating a shot, with the details or characters having undergone a change. Practically every key setting in Vertigo is returned to, the characters in an altered state while the place remains the same, the shots and cuts repeated. It’s a uniquely cinematic sleight of hand that plays with memory and dissonance. But while Vertigo returns to its locations, Long Day’s returns to snatches of dialogue- parts of stories and anecdotes from the first half which become images and characters. We hear of Luo’s mother stealing honey from a beehive with a lit torch, and in the dreamworld there’s an older lady with a torch, behind a hexagonal mesh; Wildcat had to deliver a cart of apples the day he died, and so we encounter a startled horse who upsets an applecart. Images that are left to flicker in the audience’s mind materialize in the dream. Part-two is essentially Luo wandering around in segments of dialogue, wandering around in the viewer’s attempts to piece it all together, as characters re-appear like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. You were there! And you!
Unlike The Wizard of Oz, this film spends an awful lot of time in Kansas. There’s a danger that the show-stopping part two renders part one slightly redundant. But in the end it’s unhelpful to treat the film as two parts, tied together as they are in a grand folie à deux. The dream imagery and technical feats of the second half are effective because earned by the ponderous first, which feels like a distant memory when we get there. It’s reflective of arthouse movies in general, which can often seem like wading through tepid water to get to the reward (Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is mostly a ramble towards a final scene which is one of the greatest in cinema, albeit impossible without the pre-ramble). Long Day’s is the artiest art-movie mashup you ever did see, with all the dangers of boredom and pretension that brings. But as much as it might fall apart under scrutiny (it could’ve been shorter, tighter, more focused, could’ve carried more emotional weight) it is simply one of the closest things to actually have a dream cinema has come up with since perhaps Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) or Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006). In a way, it needs to be overloaded, like an overtired mind that won’t settle down. There are times where the possibility of the film actually ending seems as remote as the prospect of sleep for the insomniac.
But it also throws in the technical fireworks (literally, the last shot is of a sparkler fizzling out, a wry grace note). Cinema attendees would have patiently held onto their 3D glasses, like a child’s pacifier, hoping that things would liven up. The first graspable object Luo finds down the dream-mineshaft is a ping pong paddle: at first I had to laugh, thinking it was an Easter egg, a knowing reference to The House of Wax (1953), the first full-length 3D movie in colour. In that film, there’s a famously pointless but wonderfully meta scene of a barker outside the wax museum, talking to the audience while thwacking a paddle-ball at them and doing fancy tricks with the string. It’s a gratuitous, flagrant display of technique and spectacle: for a film which seems at first to be about as far away from this kind of spectacle as can be, the second half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night is made of such things. We watch complex scenes of pool, ping pong, startled horses and scattered apples dropping perfectly, testing our belief in the single take and showing off the 3D. There’s a fine line between inventiveness and indulgence when it comes to gimmicks and conceits, art and entertainment; it’s in cinema’s very nature to bat between these two sides of the table.
Of course, Tarkovsky can look hopelessly earnest. The dialogue can come off overwrought and there’s barely one of his films that can go by without a hysterical woman collapsing on the floor (count them), yet he was bothered most by his sci-fi films being too sci-fi, of all things, too close to a trashy genre. Hitchcock was certainly no stranger to the negotiation between art and trash (he was also the first to the ‘single take’ party with 1948’s Rope). Vertigo perhaps presents the talisman: the perfect movie synthesis of pulpy nonsense, genre trappings and honest-to-god sublime beauty, strangeness and terror. Bi’s film betrays a certain ‘anxiety of influence’, for better or worse re-writing our reading of Vertigo, making it seem either trashier and sillier, or shrewder and smarter on the nature of life and movies, depending on your temperament. In the end, it all comes back to the ping pong ball- the movies’ eternal game of novelty and invention, banality and beauty, commerce and art, where we’re never quite sure who are the hucksters and who are the artists. Not that it should matter.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is still playing in selected cinemas in the UK and is available to stream for free with your public library membership via kanopy.com.