The Traveling Player
by Nick Pinkerton
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Dir. Bi Gan, China, Kino Lorber
In the space of only two feature films, the 29-year-old director Bi Gan has proven himself gifted with a conspicuously unusual, exhaustive, exhausting approach to exploring and transcribing the landscape of his formative years into moving images, in particular the area around his hometown, Kaili City, in the Guizhou Province. In 2015, his first feature, Kaili Blues, had its Western premiere in the Locarno Festival, where it took home multiple prizes, including Best New Director, and many of us who saw it there were convinced we’d witnessed the birth of an out-there new talent, or at the very least been overpowered by the movie’s ambition.
That this wasn’t a modest, careful, happy-just-to-be-here first film was evident from its centerpiece, a brilliantly orchestrated and executed 41-minute unbroken long take that begins approximately halfway through the narrative, wending its way through a hillside village, the sort of thing that, with its all-or-nothing brio, immediately earmarks a filmmaker as someone worth paying attention to. This was a cineaste who had set out to astonish, and astonish he did. The initial surprise at this forceful, heretofore-unheralded young filmmaker having now passed, though, it is possible to examine more closely what, exactly, we’re paying attention to.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi’s follow up, is no less vaulting in its outsized intentions than its predecessor and more polished, evidently undertaken with far greater access to resources. There is another long take, this one running just shy of an hour according to those who kept a stopwatch running. Even if my eyes don’t deceive me as to the presence of at least one cut made as the camera moves through a partition from karaoke stage to dressing room, the Rube Goldberg undertaking here features even more moving parts than that in Kaili Blues, delicate cues and triggers that keep one constantly aware of how easily the whole enterprise might at any minute be sent back to square one by a single misstep, and it has the added inducement of digital 3D—the movie begins “flat,” before inducing viewers to put their glasses on for the big show, then never goes back.
The movie, from a screenplay by Bi and Zhang Da-chun, begins with the musings of a male narrator, Luo Hongwa (Huang Jue), encountered in the desultory aftermath of a tryst in a seedy hotel room, where a reference to a previous affair in the postcoital conversation seems to inspire him to reach back into the past. Through voiceover of the boilerplate noir variety—“Everything began with the death of a friend”—we will become unstuck in time, as we remain through the first part of the movie, which shuttles regularly between present and past, dream and waking life. (Even within the traveling shot, which would seem to curtail such breaks, there are interruptions by supernatural forces.)
Like Kaili Blues, which follows a man questing after his lost nephew, Long Day’s Journey Into Night concerns a search for a missing person. In this case the searcher is Luo, who returns to Kaili for his father’s funeral. Encountering a few mysterious relics, including a photograph of a woman whose face has been burnt away, he takes them as clues to a mystery, finding himself borne back into the past, preoccupied with the idea of locating a woman with whom he’d been in love years earlier, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), and with the memory of a mutual friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi), killed years ago by Wan’s gangster boyfriend. With some effort, you may extract these basic details from the obscurity of the film’s first half, but I doubt that any viewer will in a single sitting be able to keep track of their place in film’s fractured timeline, which moves between the present and the turn of the last millennium—or at least this one didn’t.
The recognizable pivot point of Long Day’s Journey Into Night comes when Luo steps into a run-down fleapit cinema and puts on his 3D glasses—and the viewer, having been prepped by an introductory intertitle (“This is NOT a 3D film, but please join our protagonist in putting the glasses on at the right moment”), follows suit, being first of all treated to the long-delayed title card. The movie-within-a-movie that follows comprises the film’s epic traveling shot, begun with Luo encountering a ragamuffin boy holed up in what appears to be an abandoned mineshaft in the side of some limestone bluffs. The boy transports Luo, via scooter, to a cable tramway that leads into the industrial settlement below, which he rides down, suspended over oblivion, with camera in tow, encountering a dead ringer for Wan managing a pool hall in a tent. Without enumerating every detail of what follows, it can be said that Bi, while exploring the traveling shot’s ability to transcribe an untampered-with stretch of reality, is interested in particular in a kind of magic realism—an incantation at one point allows the duo, temporarily off-camera, to take flight over the village, a presumably drone-aided voyage seen from their aerial perspective. Planning the shot, he has included a number of variables more risky than mere flubbed lines, including games of ping-pong and pool, and a spooked horse that appears rather late.
Kaili Blues was made on a slim budget, using Bi’s uncle, Chen Yongzhong, as its star, and in the filmmaker’s proverbial backyard; this scrappy, handmade quality has disappeared from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which finds Bi working with professional actors including, in a small role, the legendary Sylvia Chang. While the earlier film seems like the work of someone drawing by necessity on their own resources, their memories and previous writings and circle of support, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a much more professional-seeming affair. This will perhaps build Bi’s international reputation, though his new status, in freeing him from the constraints of bare-bones moviemaking, has also left him vulnerable to a whole host of new difficulties.
The most glaring problem here is the old anxiety of influence—not that Kaili Blues was the sui generis product of a filmmaker operating in complete isolation, or anything so romantic as all that. Writing about that earlier movie in Film Comment, the critic Andrew Chan enumerated a list of Bi’s evident influences that I wouldn’t quibble with, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hou Hsiao-hsien—Hou’s regular composer, Giong Lim, has now contributed music to both of Bi’s films, being joined here by Point Hsu—and Wong Kar-Wai. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, however, the presence of Wong is much more pronounced, as is that of Andrei Tarkovsky, who casts a long, stern shadow across much of Mainland moviemaking, his films having been a regular part of Beijing Film Academy curriculum. It’s an odd couple if ever there was one, with the first part of the movie operating under the sign of Wong, and Tarkovsky taking over in the second. (As in Kaili Blues, one tends to think of Long Day’s Journey Into Night as a bifurcated movie, even if the actual apportionments of screen time don’t bear this out—in memory, these films tend to be divided between “the big shot” and “the rest of the movie.”)
While Wong is a very supreme filmmaker, he proves an unkind master to Bi, whose talent is of a very different category. Wong’s individual style was born from the fusion of his deeply ingrained feel for tradition and prerogatives of genre cinema in Hong Kong to a sensibility that is almost absurdly, ruefully romantic and ladled with nostalgia—nostalgia for love lost, nostalgia for an old Hong Kong that is itself nostalgic for an old Shanghai. In playing with genre tropes of the noir/hard-boiled variety, Bi seems to be getting at them secondhand, by way of Wong, without much feel for his sources. It is not necessarily a demerit that the film doesn’t play by the rules of the detective stories whose trappings it borrows, or that the willfully disorienting first half gives the viewer little in the way of a roadmap to negotiate it, or that Bi generally is “completely unburdened by narrative cohesion,” in the words of an admirer in Cinema Scope, but I am at a loss to identify what stimulus, sensorial or intellectual, the gnarled, waterlogged, clammy first half offers in the place of old-fashioned viewer invitations like, yes, cohesion. Bi may recall Wong with his philosophical voiceovers and neon haloes and ancient timepieces and one particularly evocative piece of women’s wear, a saturated green dress, but his movie is entirely vacant of erotic charge—odd considering that desire is presumably one of the very driving forces of Luo’s quest. Our director can pull out the grand gesture in a pinch, like a hungry climactic clench in a spinning bedroom, but there isn’t a single frame of the movie that smolders. And where some have found a poetry in the film’s achronological section, I see an unduly involuted clot, a dumping ground of bric-a-brac scenes that indifferently tumble into one another, absent of the qualities of mystery and seduction, substituting a uniform bedraggled desolation for the finer articulation of atmosphere.
There is some satisfaction that comes in seeing motifs and symbols established within the first part of Long Day’s Journey Into Night—apples, wild pomelos, ping-pong paddles—as they re-emerge in the galvanizing high-wire act performance of the second, though I’m unconvinced that the seeding of these symmetries can entirely justify the moribund experience of what has preceded. Bi is, it appears, gesturing throughout to the linkages between the vagaries of memory, dream, and cinema, all of which our narrator can be heard musing on, but Bi’s tetchy relationship with realism only makes for high drama in his film’s second part, when he’s simultaneously reviving and complicating the sense of an indexical association between the moving image and the physical environment it traverses.
There is something jarringly, uncannily modern in the feeling of Bi’s traveling shots, the bizarre, switchback itineraries of his long, wending, digressive excursions with the camera, invigorated further by his birthright attachment to settings where the recent agrarian and machine-age pasts can be corporeally felt. Watching Luo’s uncanny peregrinations through the epic traveling shot, one might even be reminded of the aesthetics of open world gameplay—though in discussing his movie, Bi mostly traffics in references to cinephile standbys, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which probably needs another explicit homage like Scottie needs that portrait of Midge. It is hard to be entirely discouraged by this work of bravura bungling and fleeting brilliance, though, for the language of digital cinematography is still young, and so is Bi. Better then to think of Long Days Journey Into Night as an instance of exploration, rather than the first sign of premature sclerosis.