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Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Bi Gan’s Hopeful Tragedy

Photo by Bai Linghai. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

I’ve been a lucid dreamer all my life. During periods of heavy anxiety it’s far more prevalent, probably because it’s hard to maintain a normal sleep schedule at those times. When these dreams occur, I have a harder time discrediting the vivid images from my REM cycle from those while awake. Results are usually sleepwalking, sleep-fighting, or waking up laughing or crying. The connectivity between reality and my dreams can occasionally be seamless and because of that I’ve always been a fan of movies that dive into bridging connections with these states and dream logic.

Dream logic is often attributed to David Lynch and his ethereal way of making plot points connect that are seemingly non-cohesive. The mind interprets the effect of some outside criteria and makes a determination to be relatable in an instinctual capacity. This is similar territory to where we find ourselves in the striking visual world of Bi Gan’s 2018 cinematic masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Gan citing Lynch’s Blue Velvet as an inspiration in crafting his characters while being interviewed by Ethan Spigland.

A woman in a bright green dress walks away down a long tunnel with the headlights of a car on her

For most people, you either love dream logic film or you utterly despise it. I find that Bi Gan’s film transcends the hatred from the subgenre’s critics by crafting his story in two halves, one half mostly grounded, while the other maintains a magical poetic sense of wonder and mystery. I’ve seen the film a few times now, kicking myself for having missed it in a theater, and I continue to catch things I never caught before. In this viewing, it became clear to me that there are more interpretations to this film than that of face-value viewing. I became convinced that the film resonates in a star-crossed lovers way and that if you frame the film within the clues provided, the outcome is quite tragic.

For those unfamiliar with Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the story centers on Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang) returning to Kaili after his father’s death and beginning a search for the love of his life Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang) who disappeared from the town years ago. Recalling memories like the suicide of his best friend Wildcat, the nefarious mob boss they worked for, and the tumultuous home life he attributes to his mother’s eloping with a beekeeper neighbor, Luo weaves a seamless timeline of fragmented memories into one last effort to find Wan. While Luo investigates the places from his youth, he collects information that shines a light on forgotten memories, bringing new realizations. As Luo closes in on the one that got away, he falls asleep in a theater and travels to Dangmai. In his vision, he romanticizes his expedition to Wan, finding catharsis for all his troubles, finally mending his past.

Much of the Long Day’s Journey Into Night story style is analogous to Bi Gan’s debut feature, Kaili Blues, which sees a doctor trek to the town of Dangmai to retrieve his very young nephew after his father sold him to a mobster. When the doctor arrives in the town, he finds that time doesn’t follow the same rules outside of Dangmai, meeting himself as an old man, his deceased wife as a young woman, and his nephew in his twenties. We see many of those ideas repeat in Journey; regrets stemming from old friendships, dreams bleeding into reality, time and eternity, and also Wan having been sold to a mobster similarly to the nephew in Blues. Kaili Blues could easily find itself in the same universe as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, though the latter’s visual aesthetic is far more compelling and shows how Bi Gan has grown behind the camera between the projects.

Luo stands in front of a billboard for Karaoke

I had, up to this last viewing, seen the film for what it was and how it can still be enjoyed: a tale of lost love and a broken mind trying to reconcile itself. Going back to my own experiences dreaming, there was a moment, just as I was beginning my own great romance, where I was dreaming so vividly that I thought I was dating multiple people. I had a lot going on in my life at the time, personal family trauma and bereavement was mixing with my hopeful new relationship and my mind was trying to rectify a way to output the resulting emotions; IE, instead of feeling both things separately, or numb to both things, my brain decided to create a conflicted feeling of both things simultaneously which, for me, was more confusing than constructing a way to explain it in this paragraph. In seeing Luo return to his hometown of Kaili after the death of his father and lovesick for an old flame, I think I felt a kindred spirit in Luo.

There’s a lot of ways to take Luo’s entrance into the dream sequence and it’s measured by your awareness in the first half of the film. Is this actually a dream? We never see Luo kill Zao in the theater scene from the past, could mob boss Zuo (Yongzhong Chen, and Bi Gan’s uncle) have killed Luo? Is this final sequence in the movie reality, magic, a dream sequence, or did Luo receive penance in limbo and journey into heaven while back in that theater? I ask you to consider the card in Zuo’s pocket and who it was for.

The movie begins with the narration of verse style poetry:

“When I saw her, I knew I was dreaming again and once you know you’re dreaming it’s an out of body experience. Sometimes you float upwards. In my dreams I would always wonder if my body were made of hydrogen. If so, then my memories must be made of stone.”

Bi Gan has a background in poetry and, when he began his venture into cinema, not much technical skill. As Luo recalls his long-lost lover in prose while finding comfort in the arms of another, he muses “Whenever I’m about to forget her I dream about her again,” and we can really see how well Gan melds his skills together to become a force in arthouse cinema, the likes of which we do not see often.

Zuo sits on the end of a couch in a fedora, smokes a cigarette. His first and second finger surround the butt as his cheeks deflate from inhalation.

I didn’t craft my theory in the introductory poem, but it does apply; during this last viewing I had come to believe that from the start Luo was already deceased before his return to Kaili. His memories, sins, and regrets have fused together creating a sort of limbo and his dreams are trying to help him ascend to another side. As the film lathers itself in heavy noir and darker pallet for the reality aspect, interesting themes are established as casino manager Luo becomes the detective of his past, collecting clues in the first half of the film in a more floaty, interwoven, and dreamlike story while the fully connected single take of the second half somehow feels more cohesive, even if it’s anything but. Luo explains, “memories mix the truth and lies,” and as stated in the introductory poem, they’re weighing him down like stone. Further echoing this is a shot of a woman in a salon hair-drying chair in the middle of the road telling Luo, “It’s living in the past that’s scary,” just prior to Luo’s dream sequence.

The connections that make me think my theory has some credibility begin in a memory where mobster Zuo Hongyua ties Luo up in the house where he and Wan have been sneaking away together, singing karaoke menacingly like a wildcard of Lynchian proportions, something like Twin Peaks’ Leeland Palmer dancing in the hotel. Zuo seeks violence for the couple’s actions because Wan is supposed to be with him, but the only repercussions result in Luo’s reemergence from freezing cold water that has built up to pool depths in the worn-down location. The attempt of Luo’s life imbues a trapped feeling in the couple, resulting in a plot to assassinate Zuo, steal his money, and leave Kaili.

Their plot is extremely Hitchcockian as Wan details Luo’s next steps: find Zuo in a theater and sync a gunshot to the scene on screen so patrons will think it was just part of the movie. We see Luo begin his attempt, sitting in the theater behind Zuo with a gun pointed into his chair. I asked myself how Zuo doesn’t recognize Luo or why Zuo’s bodyguards aren’t in the theater with him as they were at the house? As the camera pans over the two we see an ace of spades in the Zuo’s shirt pocket; if this seems familiar it’s because the card was left on the tracks at Wildcat’s execution as well. A short scene of a man pushing a body in a mining cart reveals the card at the scene. It’s Zuo’s calling card; it tells police to make it go away, which is how Wildcat’s death was ruled a suicide.

Wans legs and the skirt of her dress show in the foreground as she waits Luos reemergence from the pool of freezing water

I think the theater itself is very important. Wan and Luo are shown early in the film on a date inside the theater, long before Luo plans to assassinate Zuo, but ultimately it’s the last location in the first part of the film before Luo awakens in a very different place. The playing card’s presence is tremendous in its weight to how I watched the film on this viewing, as well. If considered and watched with that in mind, the second half of the film becomes a different perspective to the afterlife Luo has experienced so far and becomes a reprieve for the characters separated by the guilt they felt in death. In this regard I considered Joe Wright’s Atonement, about a girl who ruins her sister’s chance at happiness by falsely accusing her sister’s boyfriend of inappropriate conduct resulting in his departure to World War I and tragic death in the process. The girl crafts a fictitious story to bring the two back together, attempting to atone for the life she stole from them. It resonates with me throughout the second half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night as Luo seeks an ending to his years of tortured memories and vivid dreams.

Now in his new reality, Luo plays ping-pong, converses, and travels with his son out of the cave to a cliffside that ziplines into an arcade, naming him Wildcat in the process before moving into sequences where Wan is working as the casino manager. There are so many pieces of the puzzle from the first half that have sensational effect in the second half, like the way objects work throughout Mulholland Drive but with a more direct insight into the guilt and pain Luo has lived with for years. Long Day’s Journey Into Night clues include Karaoke billboards and trucks, the upset eating of an apple, a horse cart, a watch, and a lit torch carried by a woman on the way to run off with her beekeeper lover, and they offer a rewarding sense of closure for a stuck in the past Luo and the apt viewer alike.

Luo in a brown jacket and Wan in a red jacket embrace and share a kiss, Wans hand tenderly placed on Luos face

In the final minutes, the spinning of a house from the lover’s green spell book and Wan’s sudden realization of who Luo is felt reminiscent to Robin Williams ending his journey in What Dreams May Come, a film where Williams’ character traverses heaven and hell in order to find his wife and reunite his family. In that film, Williams’ wife, played by Annabella Sciorra, also had trouble recognizing the person she loved upon his arrival.

I’ll admit it could just have been where my head is by the end of the movie, but I grin from ear to ear at the start of the dream sequence in anticipation for what follows, so by the end of the film I’m usually welling up, overcome with emotion for the character reunions in such a beautiful setting. As the film’s final moments conclude with a shot of a sparkler still burning long after the one-minute lifespan it was allotted, the briefness of life Luo muses about as he and Wan exchange gifts seems not to apply after giving her his mother’s watch, and with it, eternity.

As stated in the beginning, I think there are many interpretations to this mesmerizing piece of cinema, varying with the headspace of the viewer when seeing it. Long Day’s Journey Into Night can be ardently hopeful, brutally tragic, or, in my case on this last viewing, a mixture of the two. Regardless, it’s an experience I love reliving and re-watching, like a reoccurring dream opening the mind to a world of possibilities.

Sean Parker

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston. He loves great concerts, all types of movies, video games, and all things nerd culture.

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