Can a big-screen romance also incorporate elements of film noir and experimental cinema? New Yorkers said “yes,” making Bi Gan’s sophomore feature an arthouse hit that was held over week after week. Mainlanders begged to differ—vehemently and angrily. Admittedly, the clever marketing campaign was a bit of a bait-and-switch, inviting couples to smooch along with the co-leads on opening night, New Year’s Eve 2018, according to the western calendar. Apparently, they were not as enraptured with the nearly hour-long 3-D tracking shot that forms the film’s second half as were international critics. New Yorkers can see it on the big screen [again] when Bi’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which screens today as part of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.
Luo Hongwu has a sketchy past, but he has returned to Kaili City at some risk, to find his former lover. It will be difficult, because he never really knew her name. She simply called herself Wan Qiwen, just like the [fictional] actress. They used to meet in an abandoned house that would flood when it rained. Wan wanted to escape from her abusive underworld husband, but she disappeared from his life as well.
In addition to his search for Wan, Luo is also carrying karmic baggage leftover from the murder of his childhood best friend Wildcat. Of course, Wan is foremost on his mind, even though he claims to have trouble remembering her. In fact, his memories somewhat intrude into his present, until he steps into a dingy movie theater and puts on a pair of 3D glasses, at which point the film completely dives down the rabbit hole into a noir wonderland. Suddenly, Luo finds himself pursuing Wan’s doppelganger as he takes a Dante-esque journey through a surreal analog of Kaili City.
Simply on a technical level, the dreamy possible dream-sequence tracking shot is quite a feat, involving multiple locations and a great deal of movement, even including aerial shots. Yet, it is also here where the film really starts to pay off on an emotional level, as Luo and Wan-not-Wan seductively circle each other and verbally spar.
Tang Wei never has much dialogue as the woman or women who might be Wan, but she still smolders up the screen. It is an arresting performance that conveys street-smart toughness, romantic yearning, and physical vulnerability, as well as just about everything in between. As Luo, Huang Jue is strong and silent, just as Bi’s aesthetic requires, but he still projects a sense of haunted, weary soul. They are certainly not a conventional movie couple, but they are quite striking together nonetheless.
Bi’s previous film, Kaili Blues, tangibly transported viewers to the back alleys of Kaili City, but despite the ostensibly common setting, Journey immerses the audience into a dark fantasia unique to itself, immediately establishing Bi as a major new cinematic stylist to be reckoned with. More than the attractive cast (including the great Sylvia Chang briefly portraying Wildcat’s mother), it is the accomplished work of production designer Liu Qiang and the remarkably consistent lensing of cinematographers Yao Hung-I, Dong Jinsong, and David Chizallet that really help realize Bi’s vision.
This is invigoratingly ambitious filmmaking. Maybe it isn’t the perfect date night movie, but it is better than most of the disposable rom-com that wash in and out theaters. It just requires an attention span and a bit of taste. Recommended for adventurous fans of romance, noir, and experimental movies, Long Day’s Journey into Night screens today (12/26) at MoMA, as part of this year’s Contenders—and it is currently available on BluRay and DVD.