If we can’t make room on our planet of avengers, and games of thrones, for a shape-shifting rumination on time and loss and memory such as Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” then we’re writing our own obituary for cinema and image-making as we know it.
Although, honestly: What do we know for sure anymore? Right now, we’re living in an age of fan service bordering on enslavement. The raging rivers of “content” (miserable word) rarely slow down long enough for anything making form, or risk, a priority. A film as defiantly peculiar and visually entrancing as this one does not float by very often.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is playing at a single Chicago theater this week, the AMC River East, in 3-D. Nearly the entire second half of the 133-minute running time is taken up with a 3D film-within-a-film sequence, scrambling the themes and performers of the first half and eventually dissolving into a rapturous kiss. It’s a sustained single shot lasting nearly an hour, tracking this way and that, through a village square, up close to a karaoke performance, into an abandoned mine shaft. No digital futzing here. All real. This one’s worth seeing in 3-D.
A destabilized film noir set in China’s subtropical, perpetually rainy Guizhou province, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (unrelated — and how! — to the Eugene O’Neill play) floats along in a self-made trance. Its taciturn protagonist, played by Huang Jue, returns to his hometown of Kaili (he used to manage a casino in Burma, we’re told) to retrieve fragments, feelings, from his past.
He’s trying to find a woman, played by Tang Wei, who knew him when, and left him wondering why. She’s now under the thumb of a karaoke-loving gangster. Meantime our searcher is pulled backwards through the writer-director’s mazelike narrative structure to find out about the fate of his deceased friend Wildcat. Already I’m risking making Bi’s riddle sound more conventionally plotted than it is. Rather, this reverie swims in a world of images, not a series of linear sequences clicking into place.
The trappings of “Long Day’s Journey” are unafraid of Old Hollywood cliché; in murmured voiceover, Jue tells us he has an addiction to “danger.” The sense of melancholy seeps into every lengthy take, along with the precipitation. We spend much of Bi’s dreamscape in pool halls, or in an abandoned mine shaft, or simply watching the man gazing at the love of his life (if she’s even meant to be a realistic depiction, as opposed to a romantic ideal). The boundaries and parameters are abstract, but Bi’s compositions are as precise as a diamond cutter’s hands.
The influences at work range far and widely, from Wong Kar-Wai’s brilliant saturations of color, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s beguiling timebends, to the floating lovers found in paintings by Marc Chagall. Three different cinematographers worked on “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and yet the results feel like a single, sustained puzzle that comes together on its own terms.
The film was a big success for exactly one week in China, marketed as a one-of-a-kind romance and released on New Year’s Eve. Then came a flurry of what-the-hell-was-that? vexations on social media and a sudden dropoff in ticket sales. In America, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is staking out a limited release, distributed by Kino Lorber, and even that is something of a miracle. Bi, not yet 30, has made a movie that feels like a visual sigh and, yes, a dream. It’s a reminder of just how expansive the cinema’s boundaries remain.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — 3.5 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2:13. In Mandarin with English subtitles.