Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan is a dream, sometimes a literal dream with a character who dreams, but the rest of the time, the movie is simply dreamlike. Except that it’s never simple. A man searches for a woman he loved long ago – that’s probably the essential structure, but as the movie leaps and slithers and jumps its way along, it also brings in memory and stories within stories.
Director Bi Gan took inspiration from all over the cultural map. He mentions American writer Henry Miller, Russian-French painter Marc Chagall, medieval French poets and a number of Chinese filmmakers from the past. The international title comes from the masterpiece by American playwright Eugene O’Neill. The movie has the slow unstoppable feel of Russian Ark, the 2002 movie shot in a single 99-minute take in The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Unfortunately, an hourlong sequence in 3-D was in 2-D on the copy shown for review. The film is a jumble, but it’s a remarkable organic glide through a fascinating, often difficult landscape, and you don’t have to know all these sources.
The action takes place in dark, dank settings. Long wet hallways and corridors that seem to lead nowhere. There’s no sunlight, no bright moments, just oppressive dark blues and difficult greens. The film spends a long time in a mineshaft where the man Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is led on his search. He pushes a cart for ore along a track. The mine, of course, is long, deep, dripping -- and metaphorical – and like a dream there seems no way out. A map on a wall becomes a ping pong table, and the young man who claims to have drawn the map says that if Hongwu can beat him in ping pong, he will lead him out of the maze of the mine. The boy turns out to be a lousy ping pong player, who gives up easily, but his promise to guide Hongwu out of the mine is a false lead, his map incoherent.
It’s the logic of dream, and the film wraps itself around itself. One tangent lead to another. Hongwu finds himself shooting pool with a woman who runs a pool hall, but barely plays the game herself.
The film feels like ancient folktales, where the young man – and it’s usually a young man – has to perform convoluted tasks: repeat this thing three times and that thing another three times in order to reach the gate of the castle which will only appear when he is ready to see it, because it has no existence in actual geography, only in the spiritual geography of the young man’s mind and heart. But those timeless stories have goals; when the character performs all his tasks and gets help when he needs it, something is gained.
In Long Day’s Journey into Night, the hero’s journey does not lead to a great aha moment. There’s no crescendo of understanding or self-realization or union with a deity. Long Day’s Journey into Night is the work of a Chinese director not yet 30 years old, and like other Chinese filmmakers of his generation he does not see life as a magnificent and coherent structure. For director Bi Gan, China may be an incredible economic juggernaut capable of immense physical projects, but Chinese society is fragmented. The old codes of behavior are falling apart, and the possibility of a clear goal has been lost.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, like Eugene O’Neill’s play, gets foggier and less certain as it progresses. Hongwu searches for the object of his desire, but he only finds himself deeper into the artifice, the pretenses and as the film itself says, the lies that make up the movies. The movie ends with a mirror, and maybe the only thing the mirror can reflect is ourselves.