Long Day’s Journey Into Night review – some kind of sorcery at work

Bi Gan’s staggeringly ambitious story of a man’s search for a lost love will dazzle and baffle long after the credits have rolled

That phrase “the magic of cinema” has been rather devalued in an age in which the wonders that we see in the movies are available to anyone with a glimmer of imagination, sufficient computer-processing power and a halfway-decent CGI budget. It’s a vanishingly rare occurrence to see something on screen and be unable to wrap your head around how it was achieved. But in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Chinese writer/director Bi Gan’s transcendent memory trip of a movie, some kind of sorcery is at work. I have seen it twice and I am still at a loss to comprehend how Bi pulled off a 55-minute unbroken sequence shot, in 3D, which includes numerous locations, a game of ping pong, a fist fight, karaoke and several minutes in which the camera appears to actually fly. It’s dazzling, baffling and staggeringly ambitious.

Nodding to the languid, super-saturated mood sculptures of Wong Kar-Wai, this is a picture which has the bones of a genre movie – there are knives, a shapeshifting femme fatale, a prickling sense of mystery – but which is constantly dissolving and reforming into something else. Like the water which is a recurring motif in a film which is as unrelentingly rainy as Se7en, the plot eddies and flows. The structure is more a mosaic of heady, half-dreamt memories than linear storytelling. As such, it is something of a head-scratcher, which shares nothing, beyond the title, with the play by Eugene O’Neill.

“Do we know when we are dreaming?” asks the central character, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), in a voiceover. The implication is that at least some of what we see on screen might have been dredged up from an unquiet night of sleep. Certainly, the boundaries between the conscious and the subconscious, the past and the present, the magic and the material seem to be porous.

The heart of the story is Hongwu’s search for a woman he once loved who said her name was Wan Qiwen. She is played by Tang Wei, who also appears as another character who may or may not be the same woman; likewise, Sylvia Chang, who also plays two separate characters, the second of whom may be the mother that left when Hongwu was a child.

There is no hard and fast correct interpretation of the elliptical enigma of the story. Bi is more interested in creating a sensual experience, achieved through soaking each frame in floods of colour and then dripping in hints of an ethereal score which sounds like a long-lost relative of Kenji Kawai’s theme for Ghost in the Shell. Appreciation depends on the audience’s ability to let go and drift with the flow.

Watch the trailer for Long Day’s Journey into Night.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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