Long Day's Journey Into Night review – an exhilarating slo-mo hallucination

Mystery, passion and fear permeate the obsessive reverie of a man searching for his lost love, which takes flight in an audacious 3D dream-fantasy sequence

There is such artistry and audacity in this new film by the 30-year-old Chinese director Bi Gan. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a hallucinatory experience whose sinuous camera movements take you on a long journey into memory and fear and a night full of dreams – with influences from David Lynch, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Wong Kar-wai. It is a film about obsessive love, lost love, and that Dantesque dark wood in which, in middle-age, you can suddenly find yourself, with a longing for the past and a creeping dread of the future.

Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is a former casino manager who has returned to the depressed home town he left 20 years before, because of the death of his father. In the family restaurant, run by his now-widowed stepmother, Luo finds a broken electric clock (one of many images indicating the treachery and unmanageability of time) and having removed the back to change the battery, he finds an old photo, apparently of a woman with whom he was passionately in love in the old days. This is Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). She was the girlfriend of a local bully and gangster Zuo Hongyuan (Chen Yongzhong) who murdered Luo’s friend, known only by his nickname Wildcat (Lee Hong-chi), whose mother (Sylvia Chang) ran a local hairdressing salon where Luo himself once worked. Then Zuo simply disappeared – on the run, or perhaps murdered himself?

Luo and this beautiful young woman, remembered in flashback wearing a distinctive green dress, pursued a doomy affair, while she feared that this dangerous former lover would reappear. And then Qiwen herself vanished, and Luo drifted away. His return has triggered an obsessive need to find her again, and to delve into his memory for clues. Just when we have acclimatised ourselves to this remarkable and enigmatic reverie, Bi raises the stakes halfway through by taking Luo into a cinema showing a 3D film, and then gives us an entire hour-long 3D dream-fantasy sequence in one unbroken shot, in which Qiwen is to reappear as a new person – the sultry and melancholy karaoke singer Kaizhen. (The film is being screened in 3D and 2D versions, and it is impressive either way.)

The effect is a kind of slo-mo exhilaration. And the film reflects deeply on the nature of memories themselves: they can be unreliable, and illusory as dreams, but perhaps the same is true of our present experience. Luo says: “The difference between films and memory is that films are always false … but memories vanish before our eyes.” Perhaps it is only falsity, the fictional falsity of cinema, or any representative art, that gives memories their structure and substance. Novels and movies have encouraged us to think of our memories as “flashbacks”: distinct, cogent scenes that we have mentally excerpted from a lost flow of time. But perhaps they are entirely different from that, and different also from dreams. They are closer to subliminal flashes, things with no articulated substance until we create one for them. Memory becomes a creative act, a developmental fleshing-out of a fleeting glimpse or feeling.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a noir movie in its way, with moody cityscapes, pool halls and wrecked buildings – the kind of buildings that in a European film of 60 years ago would obviously denote wartime destruction. That is not quite what is being suggested here: these are buildings that are being knocked down, perhaps to create something brand new, in keeping with Chinese prosperity. There is an extraordinary moment when Luo asks someone if Kaizhen is going to be on the bill at a certain club – yes, comes the reply, and in the morning the whole building is to be torn down. And where is Luo right now? Asleep in his 3D movie, dreaming everything we see? Or is it rather that the film simply uses that moment to ascend to a higher order of mystery? It is sometimes exasperating when a film suggests that everything has been a dream anyway, but Bi has let you invest just enough in the material reality of Luo’s unhappy new obsession with lost love, and his realisation that this is the only real thing that has ever happened to him. His love affair has been a waking dream, and the nearest thing to its fulfilment is this eerie new epiphany: that she is gone, and that everything must soon be gone, but that he has been vouchsafed a final new vision of her beauty at the moment of parting.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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