First things first: Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neil play of the same title, but that’s not the only misdirection in play. The Chinese director’s sophomore effort is a fascinating application of filmmaking innovation toward expressionistic ends. It follows up on the promise of his 40-minute long take in “Kaili Blues” with an even longer one, in 3D, set within the confines of a dream sequence that plays like a total revelation. Bi’s lyrical neo-noir begins with the poetic tale of a man returning to his hometown and searching for a long-lost love, then finds him putting his 3D glasses on at a movie theater — a cue for the audience to follow suit, as the movie launches into a staggering 55-minute long take shot entirely in 3D.
That gimmick might sound neat on paper, but it reaches a new level of cinematic intrigue as an immersive experience, unfolding within a surreal context that combines technical wizardry with high art. The unexpected love child of Wong Kar-wai and Andrei Tarkovsky, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” transforms from a lush, slow-burn pastiche to an audacious filmmaking gamble while maintaining the pictorial sophistication of its earlier section. It’s both languorous and eye-popping at once.
There are precedents for such acrobatic camerawork (“Russian Ark” comes to mind), but “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” adheres to its own precise rhythms, with the gall to spend over an hour building up to its main conceit. At first, the story takes the form of a leisurely potboiler, revolving around Luo (Huang Jute), a moody loner who offers pensive voiceovers as he reminisces about his time in Kaili and the significance of his return. He recalls his romance with the long-lost Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei) and wanders the rainy streets, where neon signs dot the shadows like islands of the past. Flashing back to 2000, he relives a gritty showdown with a local thug (Chen Yongzhong) and the trauma of a murder of old friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi). But these narrative threads drift past like fragments of experiences that Luo can’t fully pull together. “Memory rusts,” he says, establishing the mood of a movie that depicts exactly that.
In between swooning shots of courtship and wanderings through lonely corridors, Luo seems content to drift indefinitely through his old stomping grounds, reliving the echoes of the past with every footstep. But everyday moments have nothing on his dreams. As Luo enters a 3D world and dozes off, the audience goes with him, and then the journey really begins.
Veering off to another dimension, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” reboots in a murky cave, where Luo finds a mysterious younger version of Wildcat. The pair ride out of the narrow confines and into an expansive terrain, the camera tracking alongside them, before Luo latches on to a ramshackle zipline and careens into a small encampment where he encounters another variation on the woman from his past. Bi’s camera hums along, turns on unexpected axes, and often sits still for minutes on end as Luo continues his Kafkesque trip toward an unspecified destination.
The astonishing craftsmanship generating a persistent hypnotic quality, and the circumstances guarantee that nothing — particularly the laws of physics — will adhere to a predictable trajectory. When Luo roughs up a couple young hooligans at a pool table, the moment requires a feat of timing that has led more than one viewer to hold their breath. At one point, the characters take flight, and the drifting footage (presumably taken by a drone) reorients the movie’s perspective all over again. Memories, after all, do as they please.
Bi’s camera doesn’t tell a story in traditional terms, but its narrative foundation provides just enough character details to catapult into bracing unknown terrain. It’s not always an emotionally pleasing experience, and the minimalist plot leads to some redundant observations, but those are minor quibbles in a movie engineered to reorient the spectator. At the Cannes Film Festival, where cinema is mostly celebrated as a fixed medium of shots and cuts, “Long Day’s Journey” premiered as a delicious surprise by providing a unique alternative — moving images that transform the real world into a higher plane of awareness, in which the camera has the power to liberate the eye from its physical constraints and enter a grab bag of possibilities.
Luo’s a tough guy who fights through the night to find the answers plaguing him at every turn, but the movie suggests that no solution can match the ethereal beauty of searching for meaning as the night wears on. In this masterful directing gamble, the camera peers deep into its protagonist’s soul, and finds a whole universe lurking in its confines. For the first hour, viewers may feel silly holding onto glasses that they have no reason to wear; by the end, they’ll want to keep them on for good.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.