Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Diqiu zuihou de yewan)

China (2018) Dir. Bi Gan

We all have that dream lover who completes us, but the problem is they only exist in dreams. Some people might be lucky enough to have this dream come true (not me) but there is always that chance you might wake up and find you were still dreaming …

Returning to his hometown of Kaili after twelve years following the death of his father, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is reminded of the death of his best friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-chi). Killed by gangster Zuo (Chen Yongzhong) for outstanding gambling debts, Luo is riddled with regrets as his divorce prevented him from being with Wildcat that night.

Inspecting a stopped clock belonging to is father, Luo finds in the back a photograph of a woman with the face burned out. Luo believes she is someone he knew before, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), the lover of Zuo. As Luo never knew her real name or anything else, tracking Wan down is not easy, especially as he only sees her in his dreams

At least I think that is the plot. Writer-director Bi Gan may be a new kid on the block, but he is already a filmmaker who does what he pleases and hard cheese to anyone who can’t follow it. Beginning as a Billy Wilder-esque noir as told by Andrei Tarkovsky, Long Day’s Journey Into Night – a title pinched from a Eugene O’Neill play – abandons conventional storytelling forms to deliver what amounts to a feverish hallucination.

Upon its release in Gan’s native China, it cleaned up at the box office, albeit under false pretences – it was promoted as a romantic drama so, as it was released on New Year’s Eve, filmgoers flocked to have a sweet date night, only to be hit between the eyes with this audacious arthouse flick. Many went nuts on social media for being misled, whilst others embraced this style of cinema and thanked Gan for broadening their horizons.

But to be clear, even if you are a fan of arty cinema this film may not press all of your buttons since Gan seems intent of dragging the audience through a surreal tunnel of non-linear events with no real pay off. Luo narrates his own backstory like a 1940s private eye, flashing back to the past but randomly, context not always a concern.  

The only indicator we are in the past is the fact Wan is present and Luo doesn’t have a beard, otherwise timelines are interchangeable. Luo’s abiding memory of Wan is the shiny green dress she was wearing when they first met, on a train about to be hit by a mudslide. Luo is unpleasant towards Wan as he wants to avenge Wildcat’s murder but having realised she doesn’t know where Zuo is, goes easy on her.

Making this a little confusing is how Luo uses the old “you remind me of someone” line which Wan thinks is a chat up, though Luo is telling the truth and presents a photo; but the circumstances are the same as Luo trying to find Wan in the present day, so are we watching a flashback, a dream or has Luo found Wan’s double in the current timeline?

Further curveballs are thrown in the women Luo recalls from his past all possessing qualities found in Wan, like his mother who abandoned him a child, whose story is not to dissimilar to Wan’s. It’s as confusing to us why these memories overlapping as it is for Luo; Is he mixing up which story belongs to whom, or is he projecting things about Wan onto them to convince himself she is real?

One recurring facet in each account is a green book Wan stole containing a fantasy love story with an urban legend claiming two lovers kissing in an abandoned house can make it spin. Quite why this should be relevant for Luo seems like frippery, as he is hardly the type to be enchanted by such schoolgirl reverie, yet no answers are forthcoming and so far it seems like all Gan has given us a jumbled mess of clues to put together.

Having reached the 75-minute mark, we wonder if the conclusion will be satisfying in converging these disparate elements. Then, in one timeline, I’m not sure which, Luo sits down in a small cinema whilst waiting for Wan, puts on his 3D glasses, then the film’s title card appears. Suddenly we see Luo is in an underground mine where he meets a young boy who offers to free him if he beats him at table tennis.

Not a twist anyone was expecting I am sure, but it gets weirder. Luo jumps on a zip wire to join a karaoke party at the bottom of a hill, where he meets Kaizhen (Wei) who looks like Wan! They then fly off together to find the house written about in the green book, maybe to see if the myth is true.

Where did this ending come from you ask? That, it seems, is the whole point. Gan drops us into the middle of something that might be either the film Luo is watching or a dream he is having – our choice. And to make it more immersive, it was shot in one continuous take and in 3D! This review is based on the 2D version but it is still a stunningly planned and executed achievement, deserving of every bit of kudos Gan, his crew, and cast have thrown at them for pulling it off.

Despite the audacious second hour and the presence of the mercurial Tang Wei, I can’t help but think “So what?” about Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A fine artistic journey it may be, but after an hour plus of build up then an hour remixing the salient points into a dreamlike summary with no conclusion, what are we left with? Something fantastic to look at but frustrating to comprehend – unless I’m being thick again…