MIFF Blog: Long Day’s Journey Into Night – a goddamn movie

August 11, 2019
So much to do, so little time to accomplish it, but it's nothing compared to what it would have taken young poet turned filmmaker Bi Gan to pull off the unbroken, mesmerising 55 minute single shot that closes his latest film.

It is a rainy Saturday. Over a week has passed since the festival began in the winter nights. I’m not even close to where I thought I would be, but, but but but, I cannot forget that I’ve kept myself on track to accomplish what I set out to accomplish. Also, I’ve felt that the I’ve felt far more engaged with experiencing the films I’ve seen so far, whether I thought they were good, great, mediocre, or meh. The rush of life around and through me as I deal with a trip overseas, dates, writing these damn things, and other vagaries of existing has allowed the festival to slot in much more comfortably than I thought. It’s not a snug fitting cap, but at least it’s not a row of thorns crushing my arms.

To talk about Long Day’s Journey Into Night is to have its unbroken 55 minute take that closes the film dominate proceedings. It is unassailable in its execution, its scale, pacing, direction and performance. And yet what it does is allow the film to ascend to a strange plane that hews closer to dreams than storytelling. Our conscious selves limit how we project the dreamscape in cinema, but Long Day’s Journey… comes closer than most films have ever managed. The result is breathtaking, dark and head spinning.

You are thrown into a story that’s halfway done, expansion hinted at the margins like consciousness fitfully stirring awake. Traversing a contortion of genres that refuse to settle. I am both astounded and filled with rage-fueled jealousy by the talent on display by director Bi Gan, who is my age. But here I am on the other side, watching this stunning, baffling work of his instead of having some other person checking it out and reflecting on it while I have my own film screening at the festival. Look, if I wasn’t envious to some degree, am I even genuine about wanting to carve out a career writing films?

That all being said, I am glad – no, I’m ecstatic that a filmmaker like Bi Gan has the opportunity to create something such as this. It’s a film that benefits from going in as cold as possible, which negates around ninety-three percent of the usefulness of this review.

Pulsing within this dream is a tale fraught with love and pain, the degradation of memory and the fragility of time. We are as nothing compared to the forces within us. A paradox? I’d like to think I’ve got imagination enough to construct such things. To say that Bi Gan lounges in this atmospheric half-lidded world would be an understatement. It’s a world constructed of half-thoughts, unconvinced memories, tapered images from stories told and seen, music that your eccentric uncle was always encouraging you, your siblings and cousins to check out, sounds that are unknown but not altogether threatening, and eating apples in a way that is way too despairing.

Bi Gan doesn’t let the odd structure usurp the film – so easy it could have been to simply become a gimmick instead of being of a piece and complementary. And so we are witness to flummoxing shifts of grief, despair, pain and loss as the camera drifts – inevitable and sure – around a man (Huang Tue) both near and far, unable to get away from all that he is running from, and never reaching for what he is running to.

Things are left unanswered and unfinished, a cleaving of what’s required and what’s not. It’s certainly not for ones after a fireworks factory pay-off. Gan’s unconcern for the looseness of the story can be… I don’t want to say grating, but it does become testing. We know. We get it. We would like to move forward, but dreams are never about control, right?

Long Day’s Journey… has been wiggling around in my mind for over a week now. An itch I cannot stop scratching, a bit of food stuck in my teeth, a flash of constant deja-vu that comes with no respite. There were moments when I watched that 55 minute unbroken shot and wanted to curse and throw stuff at the screen at the sheer panache, the insane gall and confidence to pull off such a move. And what’s more, to make it actually matter, and never feel like a trick with no point once it’s been pulled. At the same time, I can imagine Bi Gan shrugging his shoulders, grinning and thinking, ‘screw it, let’s do this long take across a goddamn mountain and valley just for the fun of it, and let everyone else come up with why we decided to do it’.

Cinema is brutally exacting in its creation, the result belying the ordeal to get there. The threat of the entire enterprise crumbling into nonsensical movement and sound, if not executed in some adequate way, constantly hangs over it. That final, long shot is this balancing act in full force, unrelenting and exhilarating. A literal tightrope we and the filmmakers are locked into. Film and memory merge. I love when a movie knows it’s a goddamn movie, and this, my friends, is a goddamn movie.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival.


  1. Jim Leff

    Please delete my prior comment. This one is improved.

    “It’s a film that benefits from going in as cold as possible”

    I could not disagree more, though I agree otherwise with your assessments (OTOH I’d remove lots of qualifiers, e.g. “Our conscious selves limit how we project the dreamscape in cinema, but Long Day’s Journey… comes closer than most films have ever managed” should be “closer than any film has ever managed”. Give genius its due!)

    Let me try to explain why I think people need to be prepared/spoiled.

    Audiences are trained to try to unlock film plotting puzzles. But, plot-wise, this one is intentionally a non-solvable puzzle. The protagonist never solves it, and at a certain point (the 3-D point, of course) lets go and it fades into dreamscape, subconscious, and archetype – the mental backstage area where our lives’ emotional shards and detritus get relegated when they can’t quite connect into our bright/shiny conscious narrative. The movie charts this long day’s journey of futility letting go into dreamy nocturne.

    But most reviews I’ve seen don’t get close to this. They’re all trying to make sense of the plot…and failing, and blaming the film maker. So IMO you HAVE to tell people to accept that they don’t need to get the plot straight. You have to tell them to let the puzzles go, to understand that the ducks don’t go in a row, and to experience, along with the protagonist, the eventual letting go. Surrender with him.

    If you do, the protagonist’s shards are relegated to YOUR dreamscape. I don’t remember this as a movie of a dream, or even as a dream of a movie. It’s an actual dream I once dreamed. Bi Gan made it my dream.

    Over the first half of the movie, the protagonists’s emotional shards become emotionally charged for me, as well. I experienced his frustration and futility. In the second half, I joined the protagonist in letting it all go into subconsciousness. We co-dreamed it, he and I, and it’s now my dream. What’s more, since I’m real and the protagonist wasn’t, it’s nothing BUT my dream. A dream-within-a-dream.

    If you don’t set someone up for this, they’ll just grind and grind and grind at the shards. Just because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. Letting go is not a popular move.

    If people approach this like a plot puzzle to solve – to keep all the strands straight – they will not get/enjoy this film. Surf the internet – particularly Reddit – and you’ll see a multitude of people working furiously to put it all together, as if there’s some pot of truth lying at the end of that rainbow.

    You need people to not NEED it to make sense. Just follow along as the protagonist strains and then surrenders, letting the pieces fall away into the big creamy-dreamy.

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