The aptly named Long Day’s Journey Into Night understands how our past can keep us restless, and does so with all the cinematic magic of a dream. As I sleeplessly write, I’m reminded of the near-nightly journey I take in pursuit of sleep. Any person with insomnia or anxiety is familiar with this experience. Instead of falling asleep, most nights I lay in bed waiting for the Sandman to come or the melatonin pills to take effect, visited by awkward moments I’ve had that day, mistakes I’ve made that year, or even missteps I had in high school.
When most people create artwork, it’s often based on something they know well. Whether that is a feeling, a person or place is completely up to the artist, but in Gan Bi’s case, it’s his hometown of Kaili. In his directorial debut, Kaili Blues, he explores his city through interactions with the different types of people that live and have lived in it. It’s soft-spoken and poetic to a fault, but it is full of the natural poignancy that only comes from exploring something drenched in truth. Although the film perfectly captures the spirit of cinema verite, it also incorporates the dream-like qualities of an arthouse film. For Bi’s sophomore effort, he delivers finely tuned version of Kaili Blues.
There are many similarities, aside from the location, between the two films. Whether this will become Bi’s signature style is still too early to tell, but what is apparent is exactly the types of things he wants his audience to focus on. A recurring theme is the exploration of history through flawlessly blended time jumps that would make even “Slaughterhouse-Five” jealous. Long Day’s Journey Into Night takes place in the span of a day as Luo Hongwu revisits key moments of his past, remembering the pain, the pleasure, the foreboding and, particularly, the regrets. There’s an agonizing resonance throughout that feeds on our compulsive, human need to reflect on and re-examine our past. Like a bittersweet sonnet, the emotional journey of every verse takes us through roads we’ve traveled but also the ones we left untouched.
This often sleepily paced film owes its success to Bi’s direction. His camerawork is a concerto all its own, combining several different shots together to create a fluid symphony that eases us from one scene to the next. Technically astonishing, the shifting of camera perspectives gives the film a feeling of fantasy, as if it weren’t bound by the laws of physics or reality. We flow from one time period and place to the next, much like when you have a dream where you’re flying. The latter half of the film is purely in 3D, with the most impressive tracking shot I have ever seen. It seamlessly makes the entire sequence seem like one, long shot, and while the 3D does offer great depth, it doesn’t do much else for the film.
At nearly two and a half hours the film will feel much longer than it needs to be. This is in part thanks to the thoughtful, yet meandering pacing, but mostly because of the amazing tracking shot I mentioned earlier. This shot, while a fantastic feat of filmmaking, isn’t without its downside. The camera, unblinking, follows our main character as he journeys into the climax. Every step is documented, free of any transitions that may have otherwise cut short some of the more tedious aspects of traveling. You feel every single minute of it, and while very much intentional and true to life, it is no less wearisome.
The film’s true emotional core exists within the characters that Bi has filled the world with. Every performance never feels forced, every conversation feels genuine, and every interaction comes off as sincere. The true standout is Wei Tang (Lust, Caution), who becomes the white rabbit of the film, leading us down rabbit holes into this cinematic wonderland. Despite Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s pensive, poetic pacing, Bi creates a world full of opulence but only for those willing to take the trip.