Review: ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’

Not quite as fleeting as “Smell-O’Vision,” but 3D has scuffled in the past decade to find its footing as ornamental cinematic technology. I think we’re finally there with screens dedicated to the 3D version of a film rather than awkwardly stuffing the technology onto everyone, as well as genuine enhancements that create genuinely thrilling experiences in the dark.

Recently, I had the opportunity to view an “augmented reality” presentation where a headset provides your own personal entry into a landscape that’s utterly transporting. The only thing that kept me locked into a belief I really wasn’t roaming around a desert refugee camp was the feeling of theater-like air conditioning brushing against my skin. I’m sure we’re almost there in replicating those atmospheric constraints as well.

But, outside of that experiment, for someone who doesn’t routinely choose the 3D presentation of the latest Avengers film or Disney animated feature, what does 3D really offer and is it worth it?

Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night resoundingly answers any discussion on the matter. Yes, 3D can be a gimmick, but if used in the right way by a filmmaker whose incorporation of the technology feels as organic as any other technical decision made within a film, then the advancement is just as important as the tracking shot or jump cut.

And speaking of tracking shots, filmmaker Bi Gan has previously been feted for his amazing camerawork in Kaili Blues (2015), which showcases a 30 minute single-take as it follows a character through, over, under and around a mountainous village, occasionally breaking off to find something else and then returning back to him. It’s as if the shot encompasses an entire universe, at once foreign to the propellant of narrative cinema and necessary at the same time.

Apparently, Bi Gan felt that amateurish cinematic gambit needed improving upon, so in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he engineers a 55-minute unbroken take in 3D that assumes much of the same responsibility of initially following a character before it sweeps off into a flowing examination of some netherworld village and the slippery nature of memory.

But before we get to that, Bi Gan unspools a mysterious first half that follows once-killer Luo (Huang Jue) returning to his hometown, unable to shake the memory of the brief love affair he carried on with his best friend’s lover Wan Quiwen (Tang Wei).

Transitioning back and forth in time between his current obsessive quest and some very dark events that occurred during their love affair in 2000, Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays with all the tenets of film noir, torrid romance, and the oblique structure of Hou Hsiao-Hsien films. Moments such as two bodies wrestling in the backseat of a car obscured by rain or a theater assassination that ends with the camera flipped upside down are given little explanation. It’s as if Bi Gan crafted one entire film, then cut it up and took out the most important genre points, leaving a languid poem film in its place.

Once we think Luo may be close to finding Wan Quiwen, the film’s title card sprays across the screen, which becomes our cue to put on our 3D glasses and luxuriate in Bi Gan’s long, long free roam as Luo descends into a haunting village. Ideas and conversations in the first half become inversions of themselves in the second. The mention of wild pomelo fruit in the beginning becomes the jackpot symbol in an electronic roulette wheel in the latter half. The story of an apple cart becomes a daunting reminder of his violent past. Every woman Luo meets somehow reminds him of Wan Quiwen, and it soon becomes apparent that all his talk about memory and its fallibility will never allow him easy closure on his quest. He’s doomed to the fragments of his past.

Haunting and immensely sad, Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues Bi Gan’s unique manipulation of cinema as someone working on a higher level — both technically and emotionally — than most. Even without the use of 3D, Long Day’s Journey Into Night would be a supreme achievement, but Bi Gan’s instinct to marry the technology so deeply within his story only makes the film that much more necessary.

Portions of this review were previously published as part of my coverage of the 2019 Dallas VideoFest AltFiction showcase. Long Day’s Journey Into Night opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, May 10 at the Landmark Magnolia. Check here for information.