Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 26, 2019 2:45 pm 
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Bi Gan's astonishing second feature is a technical wonder, with some loss of emotional force from his first

Debuted at the Cannes Festival last year, now being distributed in the US by Kino Lorber, Long Day's Journey Into Night is the much-anticipated second feature of the young Chinese auteur Bi Gan, whose 2016 Kaili Blues wowed cinephiles and was the greatest astonishment of that year's New Directors/New Films. (It debuted at Locarno, where ND/NF gets a lot of its finds.) Bi Gan's talent (and he was only 25 when he shot the film) didn't go unnoticed, and for this sophomore effort the southeastern China resident (Kaili, his hometown, is the setting of both of these films) received ample funding and was able to cast well-known names. The critical reaction has been even more enthusiastic than for Kaili Blues. This is certainly an amazing picture that stands out from the crowd, and I relished it, and will want to re-watch it. But it's so highly wrought it seems a bit labored; it isn't as much fun as the first one and doesn't provide the same sense of discovery.

Bi's new film is so highly referential and self-consciously made, it may serve better as material for a film scholar's research thesis than audience enjoyment. It's also in two distinct parts that are almost like two separate movies with the same main character. It's not clear the two parts interact successfully. The first is a recollection and a journey. The second is (perhaps) a dream, and it's in 3D. They are made in two very different styles.

The main character of Journey, both parts, is Luo Hongwa (Huang Jue), a man on his way back to Kaili after a long absence - like the doctor protagonist of Kaiil Blues, Chen Sheng (Chen Yongzhong), who was going back to Kaili in to locate his nephew. Luo is a middle-aged man, "haunted by loss and regret," returning in search of Wan Qiwen (Lust, Caution star Tang Wei), a sexpot he had a memorable affair with at the turn of the century and has not heard of since. The first half, which is very fragmented, strongly evokes the style and mood of Wong Kar-wai. The influence hits you right away with the twangy, nostalgic music, the shabby-chic, colorfully lit sets, the sweaty, sexy people half undressed and puffing on cigarettes. Bi wears his influences on his sleeve. Tarkovsky comes to mind for some, and Bi himself has acknowledged many others. He relishes allusions. Hence the obvious one to Eugene O'Neill in the English title (his choice, evidently), though this has nothing to do with O'Neill's play, but makes an evocative reference to the action and mood. The Chinese title is said to be an allusion to the English title of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño's story collection Llamadas Telefónicas, Last Evenings on Earth.

This is a slow journey and a dream journey. Thoughts, feelings, and shifts around in time occupy the foreground, rather than narrative action. This film is steeped in style. The strong references to Wong Kar-wai at first both boldly declare that influence, and reveal this is a very different filmmaker. We don't get Wong's rapid movement and sense of fun, but instead a droning, intense, almost hypnotic mood. The romance flashbacks are beautiful: the color, the lighting, the sets of attractively disintegrating places; also the style in which they're photographed. Three different cinematographers worked on the film, Yao Hung-I, Dong Jinsong, and Frenchman David Chizallet. The scenes are richly evocative: Jordan Mintzer (in his Hollywood Reporter review) finds the great, elaborately lived-in sets of art director Liu Qiang reminiscent of those born of the long term collaboration between Wong Kar-wai and his production designer, William Chang.

The opening 75 minutes focus on the love affair of Luo and Wan. They met in an abandoned house in the year 2000, then sought to escape from Wan's gangster boyfirend Zuo Hongyan (Chen Yongzhong). Another recurrent tale is if the couple's gangster pal Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi), who was murdered. It was true also of Kaili Blues that gangsters are at the periphery, as if to add glamour and a whiff of danger. These aren't gangster movies, but they have a distinct neo-noir cast to them. Luo carries a pistol. He has a doomed quality. Everybody smokes a lot in the dramatically lit shadows. The mood is almost hypnotic - again, without Wong Kar-wai's quick shifts. Long takes are the thing - which, of course, means another influence, one of which might be Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

Looking for Wan now, Luo comes to a ruined or demolished town on the hills above Kaili. He wants to enter a semi-outdoor karaoke bar and play, but is told he must wait an hour, and should while away the time in a movie. So he enters a shabby cinema, sits down. And he puts on big dark glasses. This is the signal the audience has been prepared for with an opening title, to put on the 3D glasses they were given, because now the second part begins, in 3D. And it is not only in 3D, but also, like the virtuoso last 40 minutes of Kaili Blues, is one long, continuous take,as flowing and present-time-focused as the first part was broken up and shifting about in time and place.

That long take was what made you realize Kaili Blues was something truly unique and magical. It was done, as here - except this one is more elaborate and more shot semi-indoors - with the use of drones and digital fusion so skillful that if there are any breaks, we can't detect them. Such a long take, as Bi Gan does it, has a remarkable double effect. at once hyper-artificial, and hyper-real. It's artificial: one is aware every minute of observing a technical feat. At the same time it makes one identify so strongly with the camera that it heightens the sense of "being there."

This contradictory effect isn't necessarily anything new. When you watch a movie, you are always aware it's a movie, while at the same time you're up in the action. If somebody on screen is about to fall off a cliff, you catch your breath as if you were on the edge of a precipice yourself. But the 3D long-take presentation is trippier. It's movie-watching on acid.

We don't know if this segment is a dream or another film, perhaps Luo's film. It's also a nightmare. Luo gets caught in a tunnel, actually a mine shaft later converted into a prison, and gets set free by a younger version of Wildcat (Lui Feiyang), whom Luo beats at ping pong, then accompanies on a long scooter ride (as in Kaili Blues' long take), followed by a zip-line ride into town, where there is seemingly an all-night festival outdoors in a ruined space. This reminded me of the phantasmagoric, disturbing opening sequence of Stephen Spielberg's A.I. All along one is marveling at the incredible coordination of complicated activities that it took to film all this in a single take. As Mintzer notes, "Perhaps the craziest moment is when Luo wanders into an old pool hall and makes a bet with a punkish teenager who, if he messes up his tricky combination shot, would seemingly ruin the whole sequence. It’s a wager that only an uncompromising young auteur like Bi could make." But this illustrates the point of Giovanni Marchini Camia in The Film Stage that Journey, compared to Kaili Blues, besides being "a far more polished work," unfortunately also "feels a lot more calculated, often sacrificing emotional impact for ostentation."

I didn't mind the first part's strong debut to Wong Kar-wai. Wong was my greatest film discovery of the Nineties and possibly the reason why I even bother to write film reviews. Those early scenes do evoke a lot of emotion, even though it gets lost sometimes in the elaborate references and obsession with visual beauty and the somewhat somnolent pace. But in the second half, despite some great little sequences, with the ping pong kid and the young punks, in particular, and then the two women, and the sparkler, the return to which is both the triumphant final coup of the single take and the affirmation of the transitory nature of all life - all makes me feel more like I'm walking a tightrope than watching a movie. Like the filmmaker, Bi Gan is testing himself, but also testing me. Instead of enlightening me. But the graduate theses will explain why I should be enlightened, no doubt. But what I don't need anybody to tell me is that this young director is just as remarkable as he seemed at first.

Long Day's Journey Into Night/地球最后的夜晚 (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan), 138 mins., debuted at Cannes 2018 (Un Certain Regard), and played at about two dozen other international festivals, including Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Taipei and Rotterdam. Limited US theatrical release began 12 Apr. 2019. Coming to Berkeley and San Francisco May 3. National playdates. Metascore 88% (Kaili Blues was 85%).


Seeing Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night .

The film is currently showing (2 May 2019) at Lincoln Center and several other New York theaters. It will show in Landmark Theaters, rolling out at different locations.

See their schedule H E R E. It starts tomorrow, 3 May 2019, "in 3D" (but only the second half is in 3D) at the Landmark Embarcadero, San Francisco and the Landmark California, Berkeley, also Bethesda, MD and the Landmark, Los Angeles.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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