“The difference between film and memory is that films are always false,” Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) states in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “Memories mix truth and lies.” Yet it’s this statement that is the key to writer/director Bi Gan’s experimental and confounding film, an important understanding that turns Long Day’s Journey Into Night from something perplexing, into one something that ultimately fascinates.
In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Luo Hongwu returns to his hometown and searches for a woman he loved (Tang Wei). He doesn’t know her name, her age, and has a hard time remembering what she looks like. Gan splits his film into two distinct parts, the first of which is an older Luo attempting to find the mysterious woman. Gan shows this search through flashbacks to Luo’s youth and his moments with the woman that he’s loved for years. These flashbacks are scattered and confusing, never quite giving us any answers, but instead showing quick flashes of Luo with his love and their past together.
The second section of Long Day’s Journey Into Night however is a startling change. At about 71 minutes in, the opening title finally appears. What follows is an almost hour long, single take – which is also available in 3D in some screens – that proves Gan a remarkable director. The sequence includes moving through a massive location, flying several times, driving a scooter and several moments that have to go exactly right or the entire take will be ruined. It’s a massive accomplishment, and the fact that Gan pulls it off is incredible.
In the first half, Gan presents a futile attempt to regain what was long lost, a desire to grasp a dream that is fluttering out of memory. With the second, Gan creates a distinctly cinematic scenario in which the lost can be attained through a series of dream-logic goals and problems. In dreams, anything is possible, but in reality, dreams are often unattainable and hopeless endeavors.
Gan’s story is similar to Mulholland Dr., by way of Wong Kar-wai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Long Day’s Journey Into Night takes its time and the film is more often challenging and slow than not. In real time, Gan will present a glass slowly sliding across a table as a train rumbles by, and on more than one occasion, a character is shown eating an entire apple, core and all. The moment that splits Long Day’s Journey Into Night involves Luo falling asleep in a movie theater, and considering the way that Gan tells this story, that choice will probably feel relatable to many who watch this film.
But what Gan pulls off in this segmented film is a true achievement, not only in technical terms with a seemingly impossible hour-long shot, but how he utilizes the fatigue and confusion of how he tells the story into an integral part of the story itself. Like Chantal Akerman or Béla Tarr, Gan makes the character’s exhaustion, frustrations and, discombobulation our own simply in the way that the film itself is structured. Long Day’s Journey Into Night might be a struggle to get through, but once Gan’s larger goal becomes clear to the viewer, the Long Day transforms into one of the most rewarding and mesmerizing films this year.