The Chinese poster for writer-director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night would look amateurish for a film of its pedigree if it weren’t in fact a charcoal-pencil remake of Promenade, Marc Chagall’s 1918 painting of a man anchored to the ground while clutching the hand of a woman floating above him. Good luck finding a filmmaker who better exemplifies Godard’s fridge-magnet-ready inspirational quote that “it’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to” than Bi, only 29 years of age and fêted by cinephiles worldwide for his hypnotic 2015 feature-length debut Kaili Blues.
Like that film, Long Day’s Journey into Night plays gorgeously as a swirling mood piece, an epic rumination on memory and loss. The plot bears zero resemblance to the 1941 Eugene O’Neill play of same name; Bi told interviewers he just appreciated the vibe of the title, but this proves yet another feint. The Chinese title is Last Evenings on Earth, which, in turn, is the name of a 1997 collection of short stories by Roberto Bolaño. And as promised by the Chinese poster, “on Earth” alludes to a variety of routes of passage—or transcendence—made real by Bi’s filmmaking, for which clichés like “bravura” or “virtuosic” feel inadequate but apply nevertheless.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is ostensibly a film noir split into two disparate halves, the first of which jumps between the present day and the turn of the millennium. Such as it is, the story follows Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a former casino manager who’s returned to his hometown of Kaili, in the mountainous southwestern province of Guizhou (where Kaili Blues took place and where, in real life, Bi would still be drilling rocks if it weren’t for his prowess as a filmmaker). While Luo is back in town for his father’s funeral, he finds himself sidetracked in pursuit of Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei), a woman with whom he had a torrid affair back in the year 2000. Bi stages Luo’s memories of their relationship as fragmented, almost repressed. Within either timeline, the air is thick with remorse and snuffed-out opportunity. They talked about escaping to Macau together, but it’s obvious that it never happened. Indeed, one begins to suspect it never could have. While Bi’s film is more lyrical than political, it’s impossible to miss the evidence of accumulated personal capital that has sprung up in the interceding 18 years, to say nothing of the fear of police.
Ruminating on the wreckage of his life between cigarette drags, Luo perfectly fits the mold of a noir antihero, complete with an embittered voiceover narration that often dips into Wong Kar-Wai territory, but above all else he’s a survivor, plodding forward in a world that’s hazy, drenched in color, and often cruel. He recounts, in elliptical fragments, the death of his friend Wildcat (Li Hongqi) at the hands of local mafiosos—men with whom Wan was also mixed up. At one point, he visits a women’s prison to see a friend of hers, who recounts a story of committing petty burglary with Luo’s lost lover, and as she loses herself in the recollection of the memory, the walls behind her—and eventually, Luo as well—begin to slowly move even while the speakers remain stationary on either side of the fence separating them.
It’s style as substance, form as function, mimesis as poesis—just another instance of Bi’s unabashedness in “showing the work.” The dialogue, too, constantly risks giving itself away. Describing a tenant who would become his wife (and later ex-wife), a friend of Luo’s says, “She was such a good storyteller, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was fake.” Singing along to a doleful pop song on the radio, one of the Kaili gangsters whines: “Falling in love with you, I erase everything.” But instead of short-circuiting a single sweeping subtext to be revealed later, these lines merely amplify the film’s punch-drunk, sorrowful texture, blurring memory and hallucination into one: from “The difference between films and memory is that films are always false” to “I could only talk to myself in my dream.” Bi’s film is almost obstinately romantic, as deep or as shallow as its audience is willing to allow.
Even if Bi is a “visionary storyteller,” the film betrays him as a uniquely internet-era cinephile: In addition to literature, he pulls inspiration from video games, poetry, myth, and, naturally, other filmmakers. One of the characters in Kaili Blues kept referring back to a book of poems called Roadside Picnic, which is the name of the 1972 novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky that’s the basis for Tarkovksy’s Stalker. Like Kaili Blues, Long Day’s Journey into Night climaxes in a slow-burn set piece (this time, meant to be watched in 3D), a 50-minute single take made possible only through drone cinematography and seamless digital compositing—another fact Bi hasn’t been shy about. It functions as a kind of detournement of the almighty single take embraced by the generation reared on Stone and Scorsese, where every last wag of the camera takes on the significance of punctuation marks in a sentence.
Instead, Bi’s long take collapses Luo’s centrality as the main character, inviting the audience to alternatingly be within and outside the film, to forget the camera entirely. After Luo makes an uneasy friendship with a shit-talking preteen who may or may not be the ghost of Wildcat haunting his memories, a lengthy sweep sees Luo descending via tram into an open-air billiards hall on the outskirts of a mining complex, simultaneously evoking both Dante and the mechanical set-and-resetting of a roller coaster.
It’s maddening—if not impossible—to find a point from which to criticize Long Day’s Journey into Night that’s germane to the film itself. Much like the infamous Vertigo zoom, wherein the camera zooms in and pulls back at the same time, miring the actor in the center of the frame while the area behind them both shrinks and hurdles closer to the viewer, Bi’s film performs sleights that don’t pretend to be more than the sum of their parts. (Another metaphor announces itself loud and clear: a ping-pong paddle with a bird on either side, which “flies” when spun at its handle, a thaumatrope.)
Somehow, Bi’s film is self-aware and fluid as its own viewing experience, yet inextricable from its influences. While several scenes function as miniature remakes from Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Tarantino, and others, the viewer who doesn’t instantly clock these grace notes as borrowed stands the best chance of sitting back and having their mind blown for two straight hours. The film will strike at least one chord, if not all of them, with anyone who has tried to outrun their own mistakes while, at the same time, searching, perhaps endlessly, for one more glimpse at a face from the past.