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Long Day's Journey Into Night (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe not what you expect, but certainly something to see."
4 stars

It's a tough competition to be seen for movies outside the mainstream these days, but "Long Day's Journey into Night" has certainly racked up ways to pique one's curiosity by the time it reached America: For some, just being the new film by the maker of "Kaili Blues" was going to be enough, although the good reviews on the festival circuit and the fact that it included a 59-minute tracking shot in non-post-converted 3D didn't hurt. Then, on New Year's Eve, it had the biggest-ever opening of an art-house movie in China - and on New Year's Day, one of the harshest popular backlashes! Even if you get beyond all that, you've got a film that is unlikely to be forgotten, generally for the best of reasons.

It follows Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), a grizzled middle-aged man more than a bit haunted by a woman he knew when he was younger - as he tells his current lover, he'll dream about her just when he feels like he's about to forget. He's called back home to Kaili when his father dies, inheriting a beat-up van while his father's second wife gets the restaurant Being there makes him think of this Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei) again, remembering how he met her and fell in love despite never knowing her real name ("Wan Qiwen" is some half-forgotten celebrity), finding a trail of clues that might just lead him back to her.

I can certainly see why the audiences in China that were sold a romantic New Year's Eve were furious at this movie, even sympathize a little. I like melancholy a little more than average, but this was kind of a lot, and I knew what I was in for. Someone who doesn't may grow frustrated with how director Bi Gan will occasionally let the viewer feel a bit unmoored in time as Luo gets lost in nostalgia, not doing a whole lot to flesh out the crime-story bones of the past while making his progress in the present halting and pushed forward to the extent that it is by some fairly casual detective work. He creates a powerful mood, always hinting at a gap in Luo's life that he doesn't quite understand and creating a sense of mystery without frustrating: Luo starts by finding a well-nested clue - a broken clock hides a picture whose face has been removed with a name and telephone number on the other side - and from there it's the sort of noirish quest that feeds the audience a bunch of little stories that both hint at more and add up to a larger one. Qiwen is often just out of reach, but it does feel like Luo and the audience are making progress.

And while they do, it's an absolutely gorgeous movie, though, with the first hour or so offering up striking image after striking image to keep one staring as Bi nudges the movie forward on its two parallel timelines. Qiwen's green dresses pull the eye to her, an island of elegance in the middle of what can be fairly rough settings and Bi uses broken mirrors and distortion to remind the audience of just how his hero is searching through himself as well as the rest of the world. There's a wonderfully staged murder that feels both exciting and sordid. It could probably end satisfyingly after about an hour and a half, but...

But then, the movie has the viewer put on their 3D glasses and then does some absolutely amazing things with the camera, a 59-minute (seemingly) unbroken take with all sorts of challenges. It's amazing (if surprisingly muted) to watch - Bi and his "phase two" camera crew go through tunnels and tight spaces, float through the air and linger on the moment audiences were promised would happen right at midnight. It's not a fast-moving shot and does slow what's already a somewhat deliberate film down even more, but there's something brilliant to the audacity - the jump to 3D makes the dream feel different but not so obviously surreal that it can't feel like reality for Luo, and it never wanders very far from his perspective. A dead ringer for Qiwen appears, insisting she is someone else, and eventually that becomes true and not true - as Luo dreams of Qiwen, those dreams inevitably supplant his memory.

Tang Wei does nifty work, playing a memory that can, depending on who is doing the telling or what is prompting the reminiscence, falling somewhere between ingenue and femme fatale while maintaining some underlying cohesion, with "Kaizhen" a sort of abstraction who is still human enough to be tantalizing. She's in and out, as is the rest of a fine cast that tends to drop into a single scene and excel (most notably Sylvia Chang, Tuan Chun-hao, and Luo Feiyang), while Huang Jue is the stalwart anchoring every scene. There's ten or fifteen years between his present and his flashbacks, and he mostly relays the difference with body language, a hollowed desperation in the present and a subverted cynicism in the past, not quite willing to admit to himself how primal his love is. There's chemistry between Tang and Huang, even if it's all in his head.

The finale that offers both resolution and ambiguity rings a bit hollow even as it visually plays like a grand romance, and that's something that may need a bit of a chance to sink in. I suspect that it will grow more impressive with repeat viewings, and it will probably get the chance, because seeing it once creates a whole new set of enticements that can stand beside the ones that got one to see it in the first place - and the second time, one will at least have an idea of what they're in for.

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originally posted: 05/17/19 03:18:36
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  12-Apr-2019 (NR)



Directed by
  Gan Bi

Written by
  Gan Bi

  Wei Tang
  Jue Huang
  Sylvia Chang

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