Long Day's Journey Into Night is the love child of Andrei Tarkovsky and Kar-Wai Wong, garnished with a truly insane salad-dressing made up of an unholy mixture of filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, and Leos Carax, playwrights Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, poet Paul Celan, painters Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, and Jackson Pollack, and novelists Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Patrick Modiano; not exactly a compendium of the most accessible artists of all time. As unconcerned with formal conventionality as it is with narrative resolution, this is an art-house movie through and through, an esoteric puzzle made up of two distinct parts. Whilst the 2D first half is a measured, but reasonably conventional albeit non-linear noir, the second is composed of an unbroken 50-minute 3D shot that's as aesthetically audacious as it is narratively elliptical. The second feature from 30-year-old self-educated writer/director Gan Bi, Long Day's Journey is aggressively enigmatic, and the absence of character arcs, the formal daring, the languorous pacing, and the resistance to anything approaching definitive conclusions, will undoubtedly see many react with equal parts bafflement and infuriation. However, if you can get past such issues and go with the film on its own terms, you'll find a fascinatingly esoteric examination of the protean nature of memory, a film that in both form and content seems to belie its writer/director's youth and relative inexperience.
Long Day's Journey tells the story of moody loner Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang), a man haunted by his past. In 2000, he met and had a brief but memorable relationship with the mysterious Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang), whom he has never been able to forget. When he returns to his home city of Kaili to bury his father, he sets about trying to track down Qiwen, as the story of their relationship is told via flashbacks. However, it soon becomes apparent that just because Lou remembers a thing doesn't necessarily mean that that thing happened. When his search leads him to a dingy movie theatre, he puts on a pair of 3D glasses and finds himself in an abandoned mine from which his only hope of escape is to win a game of ping pong. The rest of the film takes place in his dream world. Or in the 3D movie playing in the theatre. Or in an amalgamation of both. Or in something else entirely.
Long Day's Journey's biggest selling point is unquestionably the aesthetically audacious second hour. The film starts as a garden variety noir - the world-weary voiceover, the femme fatale revealed through flashbacks, smoke-filled rooms, the back alley meetings, the dangerous gangster, the troubled friend, the darkly fatalistic tone. There's even a clue written on the back of a photo. However, all of these genre markers are jettisoned when Luo enters the cinema, putting on his 3D glasses, just as the audience is prompted to do likewise. The film's title card then appears onscreen for the first time (a full 70 minutes in), and the movie adopts a far more elliptical and esoteric stance than the investigative noir structure of the first half.
Unlike 'single-take' films such as Climax (2018), Utøya 22. juli (2018), and 1917 (2019), which use long-takes and 'hidden' edits to give the effect of a single-shot, the second half of Long Day's Journey follows films such as Russkiy kovcheg (2002) and Victoria (2015) insofar as it was legitimately shot via one single take. And not only that, but it's a complex and visually layered shot too, featuring drones, Steadicams, intricate blocking, elaborate external locations with multitudes of people, practical effects, complex interior locations, even a lengthy sequence set on a zip line. Considering the scope, it would be an impressive enough technological accomplishment in 2D, but that it was filmed with bulky 3D cameras is almost unbelievable, and that three cinematographers worked on the project is unsurprising - Hung-i Yao shot half of the 2D material, Jingsong Dong shot the rest of the 2D material and planned the 3D sequence, whilst David Chizallet actually shot the sequence.
What's especially laudable about the sequence, however, is how it never becomes gimmicky. Most movies released in 3D have no real thematic justification for being in 3D, nothing in their content to justify their form, whilst films such as Victoria have no real thematic justification for being single-shots. Long Day's Journey, however, justifies both decisions - the single-shot works in tandem with the 3D to create a vibrant and complex world of depth and vitality, but one that never seems completely real; there's always the sense of an artifice, something highly 'subjective' getting between the audience and the on-screen images, as if we're not seeing things objectively but instead seeing an individual's interpretation of things - it's reality, but it's mediated reality, with all the subjective distortions that such a thing implies.
This is a film about memory, specifically the idea that memory can be deceptive, and may have as much to do with dreams as with objective reality. In this sequence, as memory, reality, and dream seem to blend into one another, with even identity itself dissolving (several of the main actors re-appear in completely different parts), Gan shows us something that approximates a dream as well as anything you're ever likely to experience, outside actually dreaming. Any film can throw something surreal onscreen and call it a dream scene, but Long Day's Journey manages to convey not just the content of a dream, but the illogical texture of a dream. You replace the 3D images with 2D images, or you replace the single-shot with edited content, and you fundamentally lose that texture; the 3D/single-shot form is as important as James Joyce's removal of punctuation is in creating the impression of a mind on the brink of falling asleep in the last episode of Ulysses (1922) - restore the punctuation, and the interrelatedness of form and content is lost.
Speaking of literature, although the film may seem unrelated to Eugene O'Neill's 1941 play (the Chinese title similarly references a short story collection by Roberto Bolaño), a common theme is memory and the all-consuming power of time. The conventional first half of the film concerns itself not just with memory, but with the imperfect nature of memory, essentially suggesting that obsession is nothing more than a trick of the mind, an attempt to reattain something that may never have existed in the first place (also an important theme in the play). Indeed, it's worth noting that the most recurrent visual motif in the film is that of reflection - not just in mirrors, but so too in puddles, which act as slightly more distorted (subjective?) versions of the relatively perfect reflection one gets from a mirror. So even here, one can see that Gan is examining the distortions of memory and the fault line between objectivity and subjectivity.
All of which will probably go some way to telling you whether or not you're likely to enjoy Long Day's Journey. Make no mistake, this is an esoteric film that isn't especially interested in plot or character, and which uses form to explore complex issues such as memory, subjectivity, and obsession. It's rarely emotionally engaging in a conventional sense and the minimalist plot can result in some rather glib moments. The storyline is elliptical, the characters archetypal, the themes subtle, and, all things considered, the very aspects which one person will find transformative, will completely alienate another. You either embrace the emphasis on mood and tone, or you fight it, trying to find a linear narrative through-line. Personally, I loved its formal daring and admired Gan's confidence and the singularity of his vision, but at the same time, I found each section outstayed it's welcome a little, and felt the first half could lose a good 15 minutes, and the second around 10 or so. Gan also walks a very fine line between emotional detachment and emotional alienation, and it's a line he crosses a couple of times. Nevertheless, this is an awe-inspiring technical achievement, an ultra-rare example of a film which perfectly matches form to content, and a fascinating puzzle that trades in the undefinable nuances of memory. If you have the patience to work with it, the rewards are many.