Because of their inherent expense, leaps in film technology are often reserved for major studio productions, used less for artistic expression as much as shallow spectacle. In the case of 3D though, there was certainly a push-and-pull. For every vapid studio cash-grab (‘Clash of the Titans’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’), there were serious filmmakers using the technology to enhance their creative endeavours dramaturgically as well as visually (‘Gravity’ or the ‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’ trilogy). The format has mostly been forgotten now, which seems like the perfect opportunity for Chinese filmmaker Gan Bi to take this most commercial of technologies and apply it to a film that typifies the concept of international cinema, ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’.
Moving between the past and the present, this patient and methodical film noir follows Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang) as he returns to his hometown of Kaili after the death of his father, a place he hasn’t been to in decades. While there, he begins to pick up the trail of Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang, ‘Blackha’, ‘Lust, Caution’), a woman he met and fell in love with as a young man while working as a gangster. Haunted by the memory of her, he puts together the pieces of their collective parts in order to find her.
Executed with the visual dream-like specificity of David Lynch but without the surrealism, Gan Bi crafts ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ into less of a narrative than a series of echoes. It moves at a languid, meticulous pace, far more interested in character than story, but even before the 3D technology comes into play, there’s a haunting and beguiling quality to the film. Gan Bi and cinematographers Hung-i Yao, Jingsong Dong and David Chizallet lull you into a state somewhere between asleep and awake, suggesting through its evocative imagery and poetic voiceover that your relationship is to slip into the film rather than make sense of it. Luo Hongwu’s journey into his past is led by a series of totems, either physical or spiritual, and as he amasses them, the mystery of who Wan Qiwen and where she is only grows deeper. Gan Bi isn’t interested in finding the logic binding these pieces together, but rather the process of finding them, of turning back and making sense of the scattered remains of memory. In that sense, ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ has a similarly fascinating scattered relationship with the concept of memory as ‘The Souvenir’ or ‘Call Me By Your Name’: an understanding that memory is a sensorial experience where what remains grows more potent and less reliable with time. Going back through them doesn’t solidify Luo Hongwu’s understanding of who Wan Qiwen is, or even who he was, but only adds to the allure, mystery and temptations inherent in the past.
Rarely has the language of a dream been so accurately captured on screen...
Right at the point where you’re wondering where all of these pieces are heading, the film transitions - literally and figuratively - into something else entirely, from two dimensions to three, from dream-like reality into a dream itself. What follows is the now-legendary 59-minute single-take long-shot captured in native 3D, the major reason I suspect many will see the film and easily its moment of triumph. Rarely has the language of a dream been so accurately captured on screen, as all of the disparate elements of Luo Hongwu’s search of Wan Qiwen coming together not with any logic or meaning, but as a tapestry, like atoms bouncing off one another. We watch him search through an old town for her, familiar faces morphed into new unfamiliar people, totems strewn around to inform the landscape and logic of the dream, even the laws of physics gently manipulating themselves. It’s a journey into the subconscious and a portrait of the futility of his search for this woman of his past, as well as a staggering technical feat and a satisfying culmination of everything the film has been until this point. The ever-constant gliding camera and the giddying depth of field add an air of magic and electricity to the final act of the film, and if you’ve been able to switch off your mind and immerse yourself in the film, this sequence is all the more satisfying.
‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ is certain to test the patience of some audiences. It may be too esoteric, too inward, too meditative, perhaps appear too aimless. However, there’s was something about it that fascinated me, whether it was the protagonist’s myth-like search into his physical and metaphysical past (played with weary longing by Jue Huang) or the uncompromising and careful manner of Gan Bi’s storytelling. The film is much more than its famous set-piece, and at the same time all about that set-piece; a feat of filmmaking that is as impressive as it is dramaturgically vital, where dream and fantasy and longing flow together like a river, one that invites you to step in and float along with it, wherever it takes you.