The only thing more unusual than Long Day’s Journey Into Night itself is how it was marketed. This defiantly arthouse film about loss and memory was sold to Chinese audiences as a love story, perfect for a date night at the cinema. The deception may have paid off on opening day, when the film did huge business, but word spread fast and by the second day, ticket sales had fallen by a massive 96%. Audiences usually don’t enjoy being lied to.
It wasn’t a total dupe, I suppose. The film certainly does feature a romance, though it’s less interested in “meet cutes” and more in how our view of love is shaped by our often unreliable memory of it.
Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili for his father’s funeral. He seems haunted by many things, least of all the beautiful and mysterious Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). She used to be his father’s mistress but when a young Luo decides to confront her, something quickly blossoms between them.
Pieces of their relationship are revealed to us, though in an oblique, non-chronological way, events cut up and rearranged like newspaper clippings. We’re often not sure of where we are, or why a character is doing what they’re doing until they’ve already done it. It’s a disorienting feeling, mirrored in Luo’s own journey to track Wan down.
Where she has gone and why, we don’t know. But Luo gets his first clue from an old photograph hidden behind a broken clock, the one his father would have faced for hours as he drank. His pursuit of Wan is single-minded. He can’t stop thinking about her, dreaming about her. And yet his search for the truth only yields him more questions than answers.
After Chinese audiences realised they had been given a very different film than they were promised, a hashtag spread. Translated, it means “can’t understand Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Understandable. This downbeat neo-noir, blending dreams, fact and fiction, is far from straightforward. And while you may be saying “wait, what?” a few times, it never feels like the film is being willfully obtuse or that it’s subterfuge of mystery is being used to cover up any shortcomings. It is confidently complex, shrewdly strange.
As if to throw audiences for another loop, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a film of two parts. The second starts when Luo walks into a cinema and puts on his 3D glasses, which is the cue for you to do the same. Yes, 3D is back after an avalanche of cheap, tacked-on post-production 3D effectively buried the format. It was an ignoble death and a long way from the idealism with which James Cameron spoke of the technology when he kickstarted the modern 3D boom with Avatar.
But unlike Cameron, who used 3D to better immerse us in the world of the blue-skinned Na’vi, director Bi Gan uses it to provoke the opposite reaction. This half of the film sees us venture further into what we assume is Luo’s dreams or his subconscious and the 3D effect doesn’t so much immerse us in the scene as heighten its unreality, reflecting the strange effect of dreaming where everything can feel normal and strange at the same time.
It may not be enough to lead to a revival of what is now dismissed as a gimmick but it’s encouraging to see that after the fad has moved on, serious directors are willing to toy with the possibilities of an extra dimension. And for a format that’s all about tricking our eyes, there’s no better fit than this story of fantasy and illusions.