Bi Gan stands on the shoulders of giants in flawed dream-like drama

Ruairí McCann on Bi Gan’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ (2018)

Director Bi Gan came rearing into view with his debut, Kaili Blues (2015), an ambitiously bifurcated homespun affair with eighty minutes of dream inflected realism topped off with a roving, forty-minute take. His second feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night / Di qiu zui hou de ye wan, takes advantage of a bigger budget in deploying the same structure, concluding with a 59 minute dream sequence, shot in a single take in 3D.

Yet it is not simply a case of being bigger and better. Long Day’s Journey… is less concerned with plumbing a particular time and place, since both are confused throughout, and more with expanding on the lodestar of the prior’s film forty-minute finale. A romantic push and pull played out by a boy and girl who just might be younger incarnations of Chen, the protagonist, and a woman from his past. Long Day’s Journey…, in its entirety, is not only equally unmoored but preoccupied with the memory of lost love. The source being Hongwuo (Jue Huang), who is introduced during the wind-up of a one night stand spent in a squalid hotel room. its damp decor, paired with the image of his date drying her sopping wet hair, establishes a link between the stagnant, reiterated recurrently in the image of a rain soaked derelict and a waterlogged sound design, and Hongwuo as a man who has to traverse the swamp-like mire of memory and his own emotional constipation.

His tetchiness and distracted air suggest that there is something on his mind. An itch that balloons into a full-blown reverie when scratched. For on his return home to Kaili to manage his late father’s affairs, he discovers a photo that reminds him of the object of an old love affair, the talismanic Wen Qiwen (Tang Wei). They are drawn together and then separated by Hongwuo’s quest to kill Qiwen’s hood boyfriend (Yongzhong Chen), out of revenge for the murder of his best friend, Wildcat (Hong-Chi Lee). Provoked by this latent desire, Hongwuo sets off to track down Qiwen’s current whereabouts. A journey interrupted periodically by fragmentary call backs to their brief time together.

The serpentine route that these flashbacks take, jumbled like jigsaw pieces until they arranged to point towards a sort of logic that it never reaches, gives the sense of an attraction being examined but never fully deduced. But, both pivotally and near fatally, only a sense, because for a film where the central character’s listlessness is upended by the spectre and promise of eros, it remains oddly passionless. When on-screen, Jue and Tang can barely muster a spark, never mind sustain an erotic charge that has lasted for seventeen years. Yet even if this stalls the film, Bi seems not only aware of its absence but encourages it, conjuring clandestine performances hemmed in or obscured by drifting and detail-oriented cinematography. And as if that wasn’t evidence enough, Bi makes it explicit that he has form rather than fornication in mind when two scenes of physical intimacy are stopped short in order to digress into explicit references to Stalker (1979).

His remit instead seems to be igniting a viewer’s senses through a focus on texture related to but remote from the nitty gritty of human interaction. A tactic that can be fruitful for it allows Bi to pull off a deft feat like his expression of Hongwuo’s deteriorated sense of self, the acerbity of his work as a mechanic and the corrosive effect of time passing in a single leftwards pan capturing in extreme close up the rust on a broken down vehicle. The strange, distended quality of this shot, among others, and its place side by side with moves nabbed from other filmmakers, marks out him out as an artist that is not only pushing at and probing at the limits of his form but also his forebears’. For Bi seems both riddled with and empowered by an anxiety of influence in that he both places himself within a lineage, comprised of Tarkovsky of course, but also the excessive displays of romance along with the green garbed and wide brimmed impressions of In The Mood For Love (2000)’s period detail, while propelling himself full steam ahead in search of the medium’s future. The now legendary single take dream sequence’s use of 3D is appropriate then, given that the technology in various forms has existed for over hundred years and yet its adoption as a tool of the avant-garde is a development rooted in the 2010s.

It is invigorating then to watch Bi wrestle with his forebears, when many young filmmakers are thrown off the shoulders they’re standing upon. His response is not only to hold on but borrow and evade, in near equal measure, in the hope of one day becoming sufficiently unbound.

Showing 27 December 2019

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.