Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Cinematic Experimentation on the Brain

The key to understanding Long Day’s Journey Into Night comes during the opening credits – “This is NOT a 3D film”, we’re warned in stark black and white. But, of course, this is a 3D film – at least in a literal sense. In other words, the only way to make sense of Bi Gan’s dreamy masterpiece is to submit to subconscious logic – a Lynchian notion of intuition that’s rooted in our deepest, primal mind. To surrender to Long Day’s Journey Into Night is to enter a wild, beautiful, deeply original mediation on memory, love, dreams, the past, and film itself.

The picture is split into two parts that reflect and re-interpret each other. The first (2D) concerns Luo Hongwu’s (played in a stunning turn from Huang Jue) return to his Kaili hometown to look for an old flame – Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). But the trip also resurrects demons from the past – his mother’s ailing restaurant; his friend Wildcat who disappeared many years earlier; a history of murderous violence. What is real, and what is fake? We wander the hallways of Hongwu’s memory as we stroll the streets of his youth in the present, old and new colliding without warning or explanation. Often, chasms open in space-time that hurl lost or dead characters into contemporary existence.

Understanding the flow of Long Day’s Journey Into Night requires acceptance of a subconscious state: to pay attention is to actively distance yourself from the narrative; to look for clues is to obscure the key to answers. Gradually, bit by bit, narrative trappings dissolve away into the ether, replaced by poetic logic and oneiric wandering. The film acts in this way as a vast ocean of memory and meaning, waves lapping at the shore of our consciousness, conveying streams of emotional truth with convincing dream-like logic.

Hongwu wanders hypnotically through his past life as if in slow-motion, or as if trapped in a thick, impenetrable mist, chain-smoking through painful memories of love and loss. At the apex of his self-destruction, or perhaps self-realisation – the climax of his investigative potential in Kaili – he wonders into a dilapidated cinema to pass a few hours. There, he dons a pair of 3D glasses (it doesn’t take a genius to note we should do the same) and drifts into a troubled sleep. The music swells, building to a euphoric high, and the title bursts onto the screen in multi-layered, 3D glory. It may be one of the most spine-tinglingly perfect moments in the history of cinema.

In Hongwu’s slumber, this fragmented thriller is refracted by his subconscious into a spectacular dream-scape. In a single, 55-minute take (you heard that right), the innumerable strands of information floating from the first half are weaved into a poetic, emotional tapestry that recontextualises the emotional landscape of the film. Soundtracked by a Tangerine Dream-esque bath of ambient electronica, Hongwu descends into a post-industrial, disintegrating mining town from the subconscious of Andrei Tarkovsky mixed with the neon fetishism of Refn. Most films use the one-take conceit as an excuse for showboating, virtuoso camera movements and dazzling displays of ingenuity; Bi Gan uses it to give a sublime, unrivaled sense of place. Throughout the films closing hour, we wander around this town, becoming familiar with its atmosphere, layout, and population – all things which refract the blinding white light of Hongwu’s reality into a technicolour spectrum of emotional meaning.

And the thing is, the title card is right – this isn’t really a 3D film. 3D films use their extra dimension for catapulting things into the screen: explosions, birds, Dwayne the Rock Johnston; Long Day’s Journey into Night uses it for texture. Here, 3D adds an extra je ne sais quoi layer of shimmer: a perception of a third layer of vision that gives the dream a more subconscious, psychedelic texture. Sometimes, it adds depth, expanding the frame in the same way that dreams invite us into new worlds. At other times, it creates a space in the theatre – in front of the screen but not quite at the seats – where the action is allowed to unfold mid-air, floating in the ether. It’s often said that lucid dreaming is less like controlling a dream, and more like controlling a film from the comfort of a theatre – perhaps Bi Gan knows this, perhaps not, but the formatting reflects a deep understanding of the self-aware subconscious.

I won’t spoil the emotionally resonant, constantly surprising revelations and intoxicating pleasures of Long Day’s Journey Into Night any more than that, but suffice to say I’ve not even scratched the surface of a work that also includes magic books, spinning houses, ping-pong in a cave, flying people, and a lot of karaoke. Spiraling through the hypnotic madness are strains of Hong Kong cinema, Hollywood noir, and a deep exploration of the effects of time on our memories. This is cosmic Lynch; Wong Kar-Wai on acid; cinematic experimentation on the brain – if there’s a more ambitious piece of work released this year, I’ll be astounded.


James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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