Saturday, January 11, 2020

Long Day’s Journey into Night – a technical marvel that overshadows its poorly told story

If you ever need an example of film whose form and technical prowess gets so far ahead of the story that the plot dissolves into thin air, look no further than Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

It’s the evening of the winter solstice, and Luo Hongwu (played by Huang Jue) has returned to his hometown of Kaili to search for a lost love Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). There follows an existential journey …

The first half of the movie is conventional, although there is little scaffolding to help signpost the storyline. The early cinematography revels in reflective surfaces that add layers of intrigue to the dank sets. Luo’s behaviour towards women – yanking their hair – makes him an anti-hero and a bad guy.

Then Wan sits down in a cinema and dons his 3D glasses, a cue for cinema audiences to take theirs out of their hands and wear them for the final hour of the film which switches to an immersive, apparently single-shot, 3D extravaganza. (Though not much is lost if you watch a fully 2D version of the film as I did in the QFT.)

The horse with the oranges panics on cue. The rain is Biblical. The subtitles are the smallest ever in the history of cinema. Wan’s green dress should win awards. The steps up and down the final set must have worn out a lot of Steadicam operators. But the wizardry of shifting a camera from bike to human to slide to drone to human, not to mention a location that starts to spin, all distracts from the weakly told story.

When Long Day’s Journey into Night comes out on DVD, it would be worth buying to watch it to listen to a director’s commentary. But the original movie was far from satisfying and left me applauding the handful of souls who walked out of the screening at the 40-minute mark. For the first time in years, I’m not pleased I stayed to the bitter end.

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