First things first: Long Day’s Journey into Night has nothing at all to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, or with any of the movie spinoffs. Confusion piled on confusion, or possibly mischief-making, when Gan Bi’s film first debuted in China, where it was marketed as a big multiplex romance, when in fact it is a beast of a very different colour. Audiences, to say the least, were not amused.
There isn’t much of a plot in this bizarre dreamy mystery, but what there is concerns a guy whose father has just died taking up the search for a woman he knew 20 years before. The one who got away. Wan Qiwen is the name of this exotic, mysterious beauty played with exotic mystery by beautiful Wei Tang, though Wan Qiwen’s name sounds entirely different in her native dialect, enough, almost, to suggest she’s a different person.
Luo (Huang Jue), who might or might not be an actual detective, is the guy on this cold trail, visiting one run-down dump after another – a seedy hair salon, a flea-pit cinema, a grimy restaurant, a sticky karaoke bar – getting conflicting reports (she moved away, she got married, she’s a singer in a karaoke bar) and becoming more and more obsessed with this memory/fantasy of decades gone by, though to be honest it’s quite hard to get a real handle on what this character feels since he’s so impassive.
And then, at around the halfway point, an hour in, up comes the film’s title – Long Day’s Journey into Night – and whatever purchase you thought plot had on this property is jettisoned entirely. The soundtrack of washy ambience becomes even more muffled and for the last hour or so we, and Luo, are in an entirely different place, an underworld which Luo literally descends into on a primitive aerial runway, like some latter-day Orpheus pursuing Eurydice into Hades, where fantasy, memory, loss and nostalgia combine.
What was mysterious is now unfathomable and at this point the best thing to do is let go and surrender to the experience writer/director Gan Bi has cooked up, as bits of the first half of the film – characters, lines of dialogue, actors – resurface in slightly different guises. Wei Tang, for example, is now playing a character called Kaizhen, a pool-hall manager, though one who can’t play the game. Is it really Wan Qiwen, just pretending to be someone else? Who knows?
This second half, shot in 3D (when you see Luo put on his glasses in the cinema, that’s your cue to put on yours) and done all in one continuous hour-long take, is where the film takes off, literally at one point, when Luo discovers that, in this floaty underworld, he can fly.
Gan has talked about the impression made on him of seeing Tarkovsky’s Stalker – which is about a journey to a place called the Zone, where wishes are granted – and Long Day’s Journey into Night is an obvious homage to that film’s ethereal, psychoanalytical and allegorical nature. And like Stalker, this film is about events that seem to be happening out of time – we’re in a recognisable here and now, though one with all sorts of things (screen tech, for example) missing.
To ring the changes, perhaps, Gan shoots with the sort of colour palette that would bring Tarkovsky out in a sweat – Wan Qiwen wears vivid green silk in the “real” world before the jump; Kaizhen wears bright red leather. Though in both realms the lurid colours are almost subsumed by the gloom (Tarkovsky would approve) that enfolds everything.
To Tarkovsky add David Lynch. Gan is in similar territory – cinema as a theatre of dreams – though this is no imitation. He’s also close in some respects to a director like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives also deals with the interaction of the unconscious and conscious worlds.
So, yes, the audiences expecting a straight up boy-wins-girl-loses-girl affair with meet-cutes and so on were understandably a bit put out. But in its own way it is also a love story, with most of the beats of the genre present, albeit heavily reworked. Gripping isn’t the word for the finished product, but the result is almost endlessly fascinating, like finding a beautiful shell on the beach and turning it over to see which way the light catches it. Worth watching more than once.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021