Long Day’s Journey into the Night — Probing the Boundaries of Chinese Art Films

7 min read 

On the evening of Dec. 31, the artistic film named Long Day’s Journey into the Night, with the literal translation “last night on earth”, became a huge hit, which matches perfectly with the occasion of its release.

The biggest marketing gimmick of the film would be “embrace the new year with a kiss”, as numerous Chinese couples flooded into the cinema, expecting to spend the New Year’s countdown with a kiss.

Marketing gimmicks

The name “Last Night on Earth” sounds apocalyptic, with the leaked photos showing a couple kissing in dimmed lightings. The girl in grass green dress and fiery red lipsticks, has a psychedelic and coquettish temperament. While some Chinese couples expect a romantic love story, they usually find it much bewildered after the movie is over. No pretending to be artistic youth this time!

the poster of the film (source: Mtime时光网)

Before it is officially released at due time, the young director Bi Gan has already won several artistic film awards including the 71st Cannes Film Festival and the best feature film of the 55th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival.

director Bi Gan (source: zhihu)

The whole movie creates a damp and smoggy atmosphere, set in the director’s hometown Kaili, in southeastern Guizhou province, with a humid subtropical climate, where it rains most of the time in summer. (It has become a routine for Chinese artistic films to focus around “small-town” lives, usually set in forth or fifth tier cities. For instance, Cannes Film Festival nominee Mountains May Depart by Jia Zhangke, leading figure of China’s sixth generation directors.)

At the cinema, another gimmick about the movie is, it says, “This is not a 3D movie, however please put on the 3D glasses with the protagnist when necessary.” Later, we found out it was indeed a long day’s dream, with the later half being an hour’s 3D long take, a dream mingled with the past and nostalgic hallucinations.

A personal dream

The plots, however, are incredibly obscure. There is a scene depicting the whole process of a person eating an apple, with the line “When people are sad, they tend to eat a whole apple, together with the core of the apple.” Laughters broke out at the seemingly weird scene. Only after reading the movie review do I understand that it was meant to showcase that the person eating the apple was in deep emotional agony, because his girlfriend had to sell her body for money in order for him to pay his debt.

the eating apple scene (source: 尚之潮)

Then there were big part of opaque poetic narrations,
Dipping the tip of the knife into water
Watching the snow with microscopes
Over and over again
still can’t help but asking

Have you ever counted the stars in the skies?
They are like little birds
Always skydiving on my chest

The film is downright personal, interspersed with the old-school 90s rock music by the director’s favorite singer, Taiwanese rock player Wu Bai. The style of his songs match perfectly with the film’s temperament, featuring a sense of crudeness and originality.

It is understandable that all directors make their films personal, whether deliberately or subconsciously. Jia Zhangke always sets his story in his hometown in Shaanxi province, and uses his wife as the leading actress.

Some users on Douban, the most popular Chinese movie rating platform commented that the director Bi Gan must be high on drugs when shooting this film. This is not the first time that he dazzled audiences with baffling long-takes. As in his best-known movie “Kaili Blues”, there is a sequence of long takes depicting fairly ordinary moments of county lives, while combined with self-written poems narrated in an incomprehensible local dialect, becomes weirdly charming.

There is a shot showing a rider taking the protagnist to the riverside by motorcycle, and the whole scene took about ten minutes, with no progression of plots at all.

long takes in Kaili Blues (source: New York Times)

Most controversies fall upon whether the “abuse” of long takes are truly for satisfying artistic needs, or showing off filming techniques.

It reminds me of a 2002 Russian film Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov, which is one continuous, unedited long take. According to the film review by the New York Times, it is the longest unbroken shot in the history of film. Mr. Sokurov said that he wanted to capture “the flow of time” in a pure cinematic language that suggests “a single breath”. This, however, is another extreme example, whose experimental significance probably surpasses its artistic value in a sense.

Nonlinear Narratives

In Buddhism, there are Buddhas of the three times, the Buddhas of the past, present and the future. According to Mahayana Buddhism, everyone has the chance to become Buddha, break the boundaries of reincarnations, and be granted wisdom to see through the past, present and future.

In buddhist classics Diamond Sutra, “the past mind cannot be grasped, neither can the present mind or the future mind.”

The director Bi Gan always has his own way of perception of times. “People who have seen this film would know that it is about time and memory. I tried to use a lot of film vocabulary to blur the boundaries between realities and dream. If you ask me what is time from my understanding. I would say time is an invisible bird, which is visible to me but not to the audiences. That’s why I need to build up a cage in order for you to understand what I want to express about time.” Bi Gan said in an interview about Kaili Blues.

In the movie Kaili Blues, one of the most prominent implications about the mysteries of time is, a county boy said he would go to draw clocks on every carriage of the passing train, just to stop his lover from taking the train to another faraway town and leaving him. The clock went backward if the train goes by quickly, as if time is flowing backward.

clock going backward on a train (source: fensifuwu)

The mysteries of time is also depicted in the American TV series True Detective, as the character Rust Cohle says, “Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again- forever.” This is borrowed from Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. Time is infinite, which can be disordered and misplaced, and what happens in our lives does not necessarily form a linear timeline.

Rust Cohle in True Detective (source: Coub)

In Kaili Blues, the protagonist went to another town, and came to encounter with someone, that has intricate connections with his past. He met with a barber’s girl, who resembles his dead wife a lot, and all of a sudden they were chatting like couples that have lived together for years.

It’s the same with the core idea of Long Day’s Journey into the Night. In the long dream, the protagonist saw an old red-haired lady holding a torch at the gate, who was planning to run away with a man. That actually implicates his imagination of his mother running away with someone when he was little. He had a chance to stop it, but instead he let her go.

red-haired lady holding a torch (source: sina.com)

All dreams has to do with lost causes in real lives, unfulfilled desires and unfinished endings. Bi Gan’s films give us insights into how we can trace back the pieces of our past.

Albert Einstein used to say, distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

The nonlinear narratives used in Bi’s films, has a hidden pattern, that all the plots and stories of the past are not told in flashback scenes or narrations, instead he manifests, displays the past stories as if they were occurring at the moment, existent like objects.

Such idea is often traceable in western movies. In Interstellar Christopher Nolan gives a perfect depiction about time as a fourth dimension that can be reversed, from the perspective of quantum physics. Another classic example of the mixtures of dream and reality would be Mulholland Drive by David Lynch.

Interstellar by Christopher Nolan (source: Empire)

Perhaps all the genius have the same mind-boggling ideas.

Featured photo credit to ViewMovie




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