Chinese director-writer Bi Gan’s second feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, is set in Kaili like his first feature Kaili Blues. The film has nothing in common with Eugene O’Neill’s play by the same name or with the film’s Chinese title Last Evenings on Earth, a short story collection by Roberto Bolaño. They’re both just amongst many literary and artistic references that are scattered throughout the film.
Protagonist Luo Hongwa (Huang Jue) gives to us one of the central mysteries of the film by questioning the reality of fragmented memories in the first scene, as he reminisces about a love affair he had many years ago. Throughout the film, we’re never sure if what we’re seeing is a memory or a dream, reality or plays of Hongwa’s subconscious. The first 70 minutes of the film delve into that love affair between Luo and Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman straight out of a femme fatale section of a character trope book. There are ambiguous plotlines about their mutual friend Wildcat’s murder, Luo’s father’s restaurant, a green book, but none of them reach somewhere. They’re more like part of the flow than devices that advance or enrich the story.
Then starts an hour-long take in the film that is in 3D, and unlike the 40-minute long take in Kaili Blues, it isn’t integral to our understanding of the story. It doesn’t contribute to the film aesthetically, either. The scenes in the hour-long take are too stagnant to benefit from 3D technology. We put on our 3D glasses when the main character does and that’s when the film’s title appears for the first time, 70 minutes into the film. It’s an impressive choice that excites you for what’s to come but unfortunately, the rest doesn’t satisfy.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is often beautiful to look at, but nothing it shows or tells actually goes anywhere. It keeps throwing symbols and references at the audience but none of them land. It feels more like disconnected stories with the same characters than a fragmented narrative.