Tracking a lovelorn drifter’s return to his hometown of Kaili in Southwest China, emerging independent auteur Bi Gan’s sophomore feature “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is one long pose featuring a virtuoso long take, though the film itself comes up short in substance. Plunging viewers into an extended dream sequence in the name of abstract motifs such as memory, time, and space, the film is a lush plotless mood-piece swimming in artsy references and ostentatious technical exercises, with a star (Tang Wei, “Lust, Caution”) as decoration. Diehard art-house fans and critics eager to scout new auteurs will deem it an ecstatic, transporting experience, but a general audience expecting to have a basic idea of what they’re watching will be left clutching at straws.
Bi’s debut “Kaili Blues” stunned the festival circuit with its unusual film language, capped by a bravura 40-minute take. Although made on a shoestring budget, the filmmaking possesses an untamed nature that mirrored the subtropical rural landscapes and the scruffy countryfolk longing for escape. For his second outing, Bi got the whole nine yards: big budget, international co-production, A-list actresses Tang and Sylvia Chang, a pedigree crew who work for the likes of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wang Xiaoshuai.
Not surprisingly, there’s improvement in production quality, but in terms of creative development, there’s a feeling of déjà vu that carries over from the first film, as once again a road movie gradually morphs into an internal journey, featuring an even longer climactic take (this time in 3D), voiceover reciting the director’s own poetry, hints of a criminal past and some regret over an old love — only this time, everything is consciously stylized and obtuse in a way that alienates audiences rather than drawing them into his world.
After fleeing his hometown years ago, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue, “The Master”) returns to find his father dead. He discovers a faded photo of a woman hidden inside his father’s old clock. Her identity keeps shifting as he makes his way in search of her whereabouts. Inside a dank tunnel, Luo has his first haunting encounter with a woman (Tang) in a resplendent emerald-green dress. She calls herself Wan Qiwen. The scenes presumably take place either in a dream or somewhere in his subconscious, and everything else that happens and every person Luo gets entangled with may be imaginary, or unreliable reconstructions of the past.
The film evokes a sense of film noir by weaving in some fragmented backstory about Luo and his childhood sidekick Wildcat (independent filmmaker Li Hongqi) who was murdered, and a mystery related to a gun (perhaps the weapon that killed Wildcat?). Wan too has ties with criminals through her mafia boss boyfriend. However, given the willfully obscure timelines and elliptical dialogue, nothing resembling a conventional plotline or character arc emerges. It can be a wonderful experience to surrender to a film’s mood or aesthetics, or to ponder its personal vision through moving images, but in this case, the choppy structure simply lacks forward momentum, especially the sleep-inducing first hour.
And then, around the 75-minute mark, Luo goes to a run-down movie house to watch a film — which happens to be in 3D. As soon as he puts on the glasses, the film shifts into 3D as well (finally giving audiences the chance to use the glasses they were given when they entered the theater), closing out the film with a nearly hour-long continuous take. It must be said that some of the cinematography by “Mustang” DP David Chizallet is marvelous. The sheer range and weirdness of activity such — which include a ping-pong match and a long, slow plunge down a cliff via a cable-car — foreground the difficult and elaborate camera setups.
However impressive, after using the long take in “Kaili Blues” to transform motion into a state of mind (as Bi followed his traveling protagonist with exhilarating footage on a motorbike or the back of a truck), repeating the technique feels less organic to the story this time around. While the former was mostly shot outdoors, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is largely confined to more static indoor scenes, emphasizing a conscious artificiality. The 3D adds depth and texture to the images but is not absolutely crucial.
Bi cites a truckload of artistic references and inspiration, from Chagall to Dante, from Billy Wilder to Modiano (whose short story “Last Evenings on Earth” is chosen as the Chinese title), but the connections are tenuous at best. Even the English title, borrowed from Eugene O’Neill’s play, doesn’t have much to do with the source.
Cinephiles will of course rhapsodize on the influence of Wong Kar-wai on the visual style, nostalgic songs, femmes fatales with retro haircuts, the theme of transience invoked by broken-clock motifs (it was a watch needing repair in “Kaili Blues”), and the staged poses of lovers in a permanent state of aroused but unrequited desire. But beyond the invitation to spot these references, what else do they say?
Transiting from a largely unprofessional cast culled locally from Kaili to big-name actors, Bi doesn’t so much coax performances out of them as bring out a range of standalone emotive facial expressions. A rugged man with a questionable past written on his face, Huang Jue (“The Master”) exudes an intriguing presence that helps gel the other disparate characters. Tang looks smoldering but has put in more engaging performances in other films, Chang appears in a cameo that could have gone to any number of veteran actresses. All three sound like they’re struggling to speak with a Guizhou accent.
Craft contributions are strong in some parts, especially Liu Qiang’s production design, which evokes the recesses of the mind through dark, underground sets like a coalmine shaft, a basement pool hall, and flooded chambers with leaking roofs and dripping walls reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang locales. With its ethereal electronic touches, the score by Lim Giong and Point Hsu contributes most of the dreamlike tone intended. During the long 2D lead-up, atmospheric cinematography by Yao Hung-I and Dong Jinsong sets the tone for the extended set piece that culminates the film.