Tracking his protagonist’s search for a former lover, writer-director Bi Gan transports viewers through landscapes of memories and dreams in his narratively thin but visually dazzling and all-around daring “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, the film, which is unrelated to the Eugene O’Neill play, is Bi’s sophomore feature, following the similarly surreal and atmospheric “Kaili Blues.” Again, Bi displays a penchant for long, slow camera shots and tells a story about a man, a lost love and broken timepieces. But the budget is bigger, the scope greater and the look of the production is spectacular this time.
Blending Andrei Tarkovsky, Wong Kar-wai, David Lynch and Hollywood noir (Bi has cited Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” as an inspiration), the drama takes place in rainy Kaili, in China’s Guizhou province. Melancholy gun-carrying Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), in voice-over, says he can’t always distinguish reality from dreams.
Bi’s wispy plot centers on Hongwu’s search to find femme fatale Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a mysterious woman from his past. The two made love in an abandoned house and saw movies together. Qiwen had a gangster boyfriend.
The drama’s first half transpires in, apparently, the current real world, where Hongwu, using clues such as an old photograph found inside a clock, hunts for Qiwen. Bi intersperses these scenes with flashbacks, set in 2000, showing Qiwen and Hongwu’s initial meeting, in a tunnel — noir-style, she asked him to light her cigarette — and subsequent love affair.
Hongwu also has questions about two other people: his long-missing mother and a murdered friend, Wildcat.
The film’s second half consists of a 3D dream sequence that begins when Hongwu dozes off in a movie theater. In a single unbroken take, which lasts nearly an hour, Hongwu travels through a mine shaft, enters a cave, plays ping-pong with a childhood incarnation of Wildcat (Luo Feiyang) and makes a zip-line descent from a cliff into a festival. He meets a young singer who reminds him of Qiwen.
While the drama’s lack of clarity may frustrate many, and the bits-and-pieces storytelling fails to yield a compelling narrative, Bi who’s interested primarily in feeling, has made an engrossing mood piece about meaningful connection.
The dream sequence, in which the camera swoops, climbs, creeps, and, via drone technology, flies, is elating. Supreme credit goes to the cinematography and production designers.
The film also intriguingly explores how people from the past are represented in dreams and memory, and how emotion affects how people perceive reality. A romantic ending closes the movie exquisitely.
The actors, who include Sylvia Chang in two mother roles, are in effective sync with the melancholy-noir tone. Bi, who is only 29, has stated that one of his aims as a filmmaker is to create a viewing experience that will lure people into movie theaters.
This film won’t satisfy everyone, but those interested in risky, bravura filmmaking should check it out, on the big screen.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Three and a half stars
Starring: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang, Luo Feiyang
Written and directed by: Bi Gan
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes