Halfway through Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the camera never stops rolling. The 29-year-old Chinese director’s sophomore effort is a moody noir about a man grappling with his troubled past, and the second half of the movie inhabits the character’s dreams with a dazzling 59-minute long take in 3D. This ambitious approach is a natural continuation for the director, who used a 41-minute long take through a car windshield in his 2015 debut “Kaili Blues,” but the new feature includes far more acrobatic achievements: The camera roams the shadowy halls of a cave, hovers over a motorcycle, and eventually drifts into the air — all without a single cut.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was a welcome surprise to audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, who were handed 3D glasses at screenings and instructed by a title card to put them on after an hour. At Cannes, Bi detailed the extensive planning that went into the astonishing technical accomplishment at the center of the movie. “I liked the idea that the first half would be in 2D, because I wanted it to feel as fragmented as time, with little bits of memory,” he said. “With the second half, I wanted it to be real-time, and the 3D was the best way to create a spacial experience for that.”
He spent two months preparing for the long take, working with French cinematographer David Chizallet (“Mustang”) to develop a rig that could carry their RED camera through multiple environments. “I like the long take because that’s how I feel about time,” Bi said. “I compare it to a bird, locked in a cage. I’m not quite sure why other filmmakers do it, but for me, I want to make it as realistic as possible.”
In one fantastical section, one of the characters twirls a ping-pong racket in front of the camera, which then lifts off from the ground. Bi said they had to build a hook onto the rig, so that crane could attach itself to the camera at just the right moment. “When the camera was lifted up, I was very scared that it would fall,” he said. “I’d be out of money if it broke.”
The first two attempts to perform the long take were interrupted by various technical challenges. The filmmaker then successfully performed the shot five times straight, using the fifth take for the final cut. He called the other attempts “horrible,” but he remained adamant that the movie demanded a seamless approach. “I can’t control how viewers will watch the film,” he said. “But when you see a painting, you can go to the museum or look at a photo of it on your computer. That’s how I break it down.”
As for the 3D technology, Bi said that he was generally not a fan of the approach. “In general, most 3D films are bad,” he said. “There’s no need for it.” However, he singled out Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic “Gravity” and Ang Lee’s 4K HD drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” as exemplars of the approach. Still, he was disinterested in working on the scale of those studio productions. “When they were shooting ‘Gravity,’ the whole CG industry got together to finish the film,” he said.
“That’s not the kind of movie I want to make. They’re based on the stories I want to tell and the limited budget people are willing to give me.” He pointed to the Chinese investors that supported his latest project. “They don’t really question what I do,” Bi said. “They’re willing to help me with my experiments.”
He was not looking to tackle an English-language project down the line. “My films are barely in Mandarin, so I’m not even sure I could make something out of that because my films are very Chinese,” he said.
While the overall U.S. release strategy for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” remains unclear, the movie is screening at the New York Film Festival in 3D. Bi was not invested in those plans. “My main concern was the 3D section,” he said. “Once I’m done with it, that’s the end of my responsibility, not what distributors choose to do with it.”
He remained confident about the prospects of releasing his work in China, which recently outpaced the U.S. with the most theaters in the world. “The expansion of cinemas is so massive, and Chinese people are so interested in viewing films,” he said. “They just need to be exposed to better stories.”
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” screens October 2 and October 4 at the New York Film Festival. Kino Lorber will release it theatrically in 2019.