PRINT March 2019



Bi Gan, Di qiu zui hou de ye wan (Long Day’s Journey into Night), 2018, 2K 3-D and 2-D video, color, sound, 140 minutes.  Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi). Production still. Photo: Liu Hongyu.

“ARTY,” A COINAGE DATING to the heyday of Jugendstil, isn’t a term I like to use, but it seems unavoidable in discussing the work of the Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan. Two features into his career and just shy of thirty, Bi has established himself as the artiest internationally known director this side of the arch-pretensoids Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky. I don’t much care for either of those filmmakers, each a textbook practitioner of what Manny Farber, in the Winter 1962–63 issue of Film Culture, famously called “white elephant” filmmaking, but Bi is something else.

Farber took issue with would-be masterpieces, “reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago,” made by self-important filmmakers (like Malick and Aronofsky, Harvard men both) who sought “to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” Bi may be out to impress, but his approach is less ham-fisted and more eccentric. Although Di qiu zui hou de ye wan (Long Day’s Journey into Night, 2018) is a moody crypto-noir that veers midway into Tibetan Book of the Dead territory, a relentless and comically misleading social-media strategy promoting the movie as a rom-com turned it into a one-day blockbuster. Its outlandish $38 million first-day take set a record in China, exceeding the haul garnered by the superhero megahit Venom (2018). In a way, this oddball positioning was mirrored by the poster used at the Cannes Film Festival (where Long Day’s Journey, which takes its Chinese title, “Last Evenings on Earth,” not from Eugene O’Neill’s play but from a story by Roberto Bolaño, had its premiere last May), which quoted The Promenade, Marc Chagall’s 1917–18 painting of the smiling artist holding his wife by the hand as she floats, weightless, above a verdant cubistic representation of their hometown, Vitebsk, Belarus.

Bi has established himself as the artiest internationally known director this side of the arch-pretensoids Terrence Malick and Darren Aronofsky.

If the use of this cheery icon seems something of a private joke, it’s not at all clear that Bi is interested in being understood. That he has insisted on using the southwestern dialect of his native Guizhou province, rather than standard Mandarin, in both of his features means that his movies require defamiliarizing subtitles even in his home country. Not that inability to understand the dialogue is fatal in movies so dreamily oblique. What’s perfectly lucid is Bi’s bravura technique, predicated on his deep attachment to the Bazinian flow of cinematic images, although that very technique makes his films difficult to describe.

Production still from Bi Gan’s Di qiu zui hou de ye wan (Long Day’s Journey into Night), 2018, 2K 3-D and 2-D video, color, sound, 140 minutes. Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) and Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). 

Prefaced with a quote from the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist disquisition on the emptiness of all things, to the effect that past, present, and future are equally elusive, his debut feature, Lu bian ye can (Kaili Blues, 2015), might be described as a mental travelogue into a mysteriously unhinged eternal now, one constructed around a tour de force of performative cinema: namely, a highly choreographed forty-one-minute take. Or, as Catherine Shoard more succinctly put it in The Guardian, Kaili Blues is a film “about two depressed rural doctors.” With some trepidation, I add that the younger doctor undertakes a voyage into the past, on his own behalf as well as that of his older colleague, and possibly retrieves something that has been lost.

Just about the easiest thing for a critic to say about Kaili Blues is that Bi succeeds in engaging and synthesizing the work of a half-dozen cinematic time-benders (Hou Hsiao-hsien, David Lynch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr), as well as in hewing a space for himself alongside oneiricists Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Wong Kar-wai. Heavier than Kaili Blues on atmosphere, Long Day’s Journey seems most indebted to Wong’s early tropical noirs Days of Being Wild (1990) and Fallen Angels (1995). (The opening sequence, which segues from a swirling exploration of a deserted, smudgily lit nightclub to a beautiful, unhappy couple languorously chewing over the past in a shabby hotel, strongly evokes Wong, as does the scene’s muted yet lush palette and Bi’s decision to name his characters after Chinese pop stars.) Tarkovsky—a figure who looms over the work of Malick and Aronofsky, not to mention that of Tarr, Alexander Sokurov, and Lars von Trier—is also present in the movie’s terrarium humidity, its dank drip-drip-drip. But mainly, Long Day’s Journey is an elaboration on the themes and structure of Kaili Blues.

Production still from Bi Gan’s Di qiu zui hou de ye wan (Long Day’s Journey into Night), 2018, 2K 3-D and 2-D video, color, sound, 140 minutes. Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) and Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang). Photos: Liu Hongyu.

Any explication of the new movie’s plot is purely provisional. In the first half, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns, apparently from Burma, where he managed a casino, to his native city, Kaili—Bi’s hometown, the recurring site of memory and death—where his parents ran a restaurant. He is searching for his past in the person of Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he loved and who was previously involved with his friend, nicknamed Wildcat, now dead. Having found an address on a scrap of paper in his parents’ restaurant, Luo visits Wildcat’s mother (the legendary Taiwanese actress-filmmaker Sylvia Chang) in her airy country home, in hopes she’ll tell him where he can find Wan. When he does track down his ex, he finds she’s married to a gangster. Luo and Wan plan to run away to Burma—at least that’s the fantasy.

The story languidly advances and recedes, withholding and digressing, as Bi’s camera drifts through junkyards, train tunnels, and empty karaoke bars. Focus is shallow, perhaps to accommodate the low illumination. Long takes are lit solely by candles. Images are distorted by condensation-streaked glass windows or diffracted by rain. Montage sequences pose chronological puzzles. The dialogue, such as it is, is marked by mysteries, mostly left unsolved. Toward the middle of the film, Luo, alone (having seemingly escaped from Wan’s husband, who has bound and tortured him), takes refuge in a movie theater, or perhaps only imagines that he has. Just as Kaili Blues shifts into a new mode once its protagonist leaves Kaili for the countryside, entering a zone where, thanks to Bi’s circuitous, forty-one-minute take, time assumes a material aspect and all temporal states seem to coexist, so Long Day’s Journey becomes something like Luo’s dream. As he falls asleep, the Long Day’s Journey audience is instructed by an intertitle to put on the 3-D glasses they’ve been handed before the show. The viewer is thus transported, along with Luo, to a nocturnal underworld—the bardo.

The movie’s second half is the first half replayed, at once jumbled and, insofar as it consists of a single, sinuous fifty-minute take, absurdly linear in its narrative development. Luo, swinging a lantern in the darkness of a cave, encounters a child wearing a cow skull as a mask. This bratty kid, whom Luo must defeat at ping-pong if he is to find his way back to the light of day, might be the young Wildcat, but he might also be Luo’s unborn son—earlier, Luo mused about an aborted child whom he might have taught to play ping-pong. Having won the game, Luo is transported via motor scooter and zip line to a pool hall managed by an alternate Wan, punk and resplendent in a red leather jacket.

At one point, Luo and the alt Wan, who testily refuses to recognize him, use a magic ping-pong paddle to escape the pool hall (they’ve been locked in) and fly over the local night market—Chagall!—which, illuminated with strung Christmas lights, lies dreary and glorious below, the site of what seems to be a sparsely attended karaoke marathon. Somehow, a red-haired version of Wildcat’s mother can be found there as well. Motion is constant as the camera follows Luo along winding paths through the madly warped space, as he ducks into tunnels and clambers upstairs in search of the woman who is and is not Wan and with whom, at the end, presaged by a sparkler he lights in her dressing room, he shares a kiss.

That climactic embrace was instrumental in the movie’s Chinese reception, providing the hook that made it possible to promote the film as another Love Actually. Touted on Weibo and other Chinese social-media apps weeks in advance as the perfect New Year’s Eve date film (“Do you know what kind of sweet talk you’ll use to invite someone to the last film of 2018 . . . ?”), Long Day’s Journey opened wide. The morning-after reaction was cataclysmic—an object lesson in creative mismarketing that almost seems designed to create a film maudit. Thanks to toxic word of mouth, second-day grosses fell to $1.5 million. Complaints resounded through Chinese cyberspace and even reached the American trade press. Variety quoted a few choice responses. Long Day’s Journey is “a total bomb, the worst trash of all trash,” and “those who say that the film had artistic meanings that we’re just unable to understand, please go eat shit.”

Tell it to Tarkovsky.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.