Directed by Bi Gan
I’ve never seen anything like Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s an unsettling, sleepy and disorienting tale about a man looking for a woman from his past, or maybe she only ever existed in his dreams, it’s hard to recall. Remembering the story is like trying to piece together the fragments of a dream, and this is partly because half of the film is itself a dream. It’s an incredible 59 minute 3-D tracking shot in real time. It’s mesmerizing, textured and at the same time fleeting in the ways dreams are.
The film opens with the man, Hongwu Luo, telling us in echo-ey narration about a woman he once loved. The sound design on the film is similar to that of Roma, with noises and voices seemingly projected from all around the theater. When we hear Hongwu’s voice it feels less like he’s talking to us and more like we are firmly trapped inside his head, listening to his innermost thoughts. We are him, and we are experiencing his present in conjunction with his past, sometimes unable to tell the two apart.
The first half of the film is confusing. I often had trouble piecing together where he was, what he was doing and whether this was past or present. In a strange way the most clarity came from that 3-D second half, all in real time. Hongwu’s grasp of place and time is clearest in his dreams, when such things as flight and improbable reunions are possible.
All I can really describe are the feelings provoked by his plight and his world onscreen. It’s a grim place seen through the eyes of a grim person. You get the sense that he is perpetually lost, not just since looking for this woman but since the day he was born. There’s something Sisyphus-ian about him and his journey, which based on the film’s slow pace and moody tone is suggested to have no ending.
When we enter the second half there is some relief offered by the surface level clarity. His goals are remarkably immediate and simple, the objectives you find in a video game, for example. He first meets a self-assured twelve year-old boy who promises to show him the way forward only if he beats him in ping pong. Hongwu does, rather easily.
The boy sends him to his next checkpoint and gives him the ping paddle which, should he spin it, will allow him to fly. Eventually it does.
Wonghu then meets a woman who may or may not be the woman he’s been searching for. This being a dream he surely doesn’t act as he would in reality, instead stumbling across her and not with the dumbfounded urgency he might possess should he actually, finally find her. They instead embark on their own sort of mission, finding themselves locked in a pool hall, then flying slowly over the village, then her preparing to sing in a staged competition. He promises to leave her alone if she sings just one song.
The characters are as if borrowed from real life, their likeness plastered on mannequins. The dream felt to me incredibly dreamlike, with a series of moments that feel fragmented but are literally stitched together in a continuous shot. It’s like that line from Inception in which DiCaprio’s character explains that in a dream you never remember how you got here. In Nolan’s film characters just appear in the new location, but here we see all of these disconnected moments connected through the single take. It is inexplicable and yet logical within this world.
That 59-minute take is unbelievable, and based on what I’ve read it is a sincere unbroken take, with no hidden cuts. It involves a steadicam, a crane and most notably a drone onto which the camera was attached with a magnet. Director Bi Gan was worried about the transition at the end of the drone shot as removing the camera from the drone was awkward and uneven, but in the final take the drone startled a horse, and the impromptu moment adequately, even amusingly helps us transition into the next phase of the single take. The startled horse occupies your attention for long enough to forget about any unusual camera movements.
That second half of the film is so mystifying that I feel as though I can’t remember any of the first half. The characters and the world are well-assembled, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. It’s the second half, based mostly on the immense effort that went into pulling it off, that makes this so unique and so unforgettable. I’m not sure if I’m overlooking some the first half of the film or if I’m just too concerned with the behind the scenes effort that yielded the second. Either way it stands out.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is one of those movies that feels like it could only be made with some element of skill, luck and magic. I’m pretty sure I felt the same way when I saw Inception and Roma, just to repeat a few titles. It calls attention to its own construction, as if forcing you to consider how it was pulled off in real time. In several instances a character theorizes on the degree of truth and lies in film and in memories. Long Day’s Journey Into Night keeps reminding you it’s a movie and then tricks you anyways.
Up Next: Dazed and Confused (1993), Destroyer (2018), Steve Jobs (2015)