Not to be confused with Eugene O’Neill’s play or any of its subsequent screen adaptations, Chinese box office phenomenon “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a mesmerizing hallucination of a film, a journey through one man’s memories for a truth that may not exist. Tang Wei and Huang Jue play a doomed romantic pair in Bi Gan’s languid thriller, which owes a tremendous debt to the likes of Tarkovsky, Malick and Wong Kar-wai even as it forges its own indelible, impressionistic path.
Huang (“The Hidden Sword”) plays Luo Hongwu, a man returning to his hometown of Kaili after the death of his father. Besieged by memories of his past — including a relationship with gangster’s moll Wan Qiwen (Tang, “Monster Hunt”), who disappeared many years ago on the eve of them running away together — Luo revisits old acquaintances and reflects on the impact of the people he has lost. But after reconnecting with the mother (Sylvia Chang, “Mountains May Depart”) of his deceased friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-chi), Luo becomes consumed with finding Wan and embarks on a journey to locate her, hoping to rekindle a relationship that had disappeared into the recesses of his memory.
As flashes of their time together filter through his amateur investigation, he eventually discovers that Wan became a popular karaoke singer — or, at the very least, someone with her name did. But as he closes in on her whereabouts, following the troupe that she sings with, Luo begins to question what information is real and what isn’t as those clues feel increasingly disjointed and distant from the obsession, meandering though it may be, that threatens to consume him.
Comprised of long takes, seamless transitions and shots of seemingly endless depth, Bi Gan’s film unfolds precisely like the kinds of dreams or memories that occupy Luo, where the character’s reality dissolves from one location and one time period to another without settling on which one is truly happening. The camerawork, attributed to three cinematographers, is effortlessly cohesive — unobtrusive, continuous, omniscient — and amplifies Luo’s confusion and the audience’s curiosity. The love between Luo and Wan feels perilous from the start, but they share less the thrill of something forbidden than the sensation of its inevitable conclusion; they seem “doomed” less because of external forces than their mutual inability to understand their feelings about themselves and for one another. Both already seem haunted by love, or the need for it, and are merely choosing the other as a vessel for that feeling.
Oddly, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” feels a bit like a less explicit version of Vincent Gallo’s deeply flawed “The Brown Bunny,” a film that is too entrancing to ignore but seems engineered to prompt questions and inspire reflection rather than provide a clear or propulsive narrative. Luo’s search for answers stimulates our own remembrances — is that how that moment in my own relationship really happened? — and creates an intriguing fog of ambiguity between what motivates him, what he’s doing, and just how much of it is actually occurring.
Late in the film he encounters another woman named Kaizhen, also played by Tang Wei, who he thinks is Wan in disguise. Is she just lying? Are his memories of Wan deceiving him? Or is he projecting false expectations or hopes onto another woman? How much have we done, or do we do, that ourselves? These thoughts feel like they would be a distraction, but Bi Gan’s methodical approach makes them an essential part of the film.
That virtually every scene unfolds either like a flashback or an investigation (Luo acquires anecdotes from others that reinforce his experiences and provide him with what he believes are breadcrumbs leading toward a reunion) further calls into question the depth and believability of their forbidden tryst. What emerges is the undeniable truth that it’s easy to succumb to obsession, but that doesn’t mean that it was mutual, or even real.
Then of course there’s the film’s celebrated final sequence, an hour-long continuous shot in 3D where Luo gets lost in a cave, escapes with the help of a young ping-pong playing boy, meets Kaizhen, and wanders the streets of a nearby village in search of a final answer. The unbroken shot is magical to watch, but it stands out more in stark thematic rather than technical juxtaposition, as it forces Luo, and the audience, to experience his journey, his search, in real time. Our anticipation builds as he believes he will finally see Wan, rekindling or paying off their unresolved romance. But even as a ping-pong paddle enables him and Kaizhen to soar high overhead, and the words of a poem send them spinning, anchorless, in a burnt-out house that once symbolized the sweet love that Luo believes he lost, he is forced to deal with the immediate and undeniable mundaneness of his search — and most importantly, its inescapable irresolution.
Unhurried at two hours and 20 minutes and disinterested in offering convenience or definition, Bi’s film sometimes feels as much a test as a journey. But those who take it will feel duly rewarded, as it heralds the arrival of a filmmaker with a strong voice and haunting style. Explicitly arguing that memories are partly experienced and partly manufactured, and that all filmmaking is fiction, it nevertheless speaks to an irrefutable truth: even something that is a lie can feel more real than reality itself.
“A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” reinforces this idea in both form and content by marking the beginning of a journey between a bigger moviegoing audience and a major talent that leaves its answers — and the filmmaker’s message — in the hands of the viewer to discern.