The Neglected Politicism of Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

**** (out of 4)

According to its IMDb plot summary, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (henceforth LDJIN) is a quest movie that’s set in present-day China. The protagonist, a middle-aged man named Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), finds himself returning to the southern city of Kaili after receiving word of his father’s passing. While there, moreover, he tries to track down a former lover (Tang Wei) and learn more about an old friend (Lee Hong-chi) who’s now dead.

As you quickly come to see, however, LDJIN doesn’t actually care much about this framing quest premise. For starters, the film’s first half eschews the focused, linear chronology that quest narratives typically use, featuring temporally disparate sequences and reflective, apparently tangential voice-over meditations on topics like sadness and memory. Furthermore, during the film’s second half, Bi drops the pretense of a quest narrative altogether, treating us to a 3D, hour-long dream sequence that consists entirely of one shot.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Given the flamboyance with which LDJIN rejects the conventions of traditional narrative cinema, many critics have chosen to focus on the film’s style and the way it expands our understanding of what cinema can do. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, for instance, praised Bi’s decision to provide a “unique alternative” to the “shots and cuts” structure of classical cinema. Calling the film a “delicious surprise,” he noted that it consists of “moving images that transform the real world into a higher plane of awareness, in which the camera has the power to liberate the eye…and enter a grab bag of possibilities.”

From here, other critics have treated LDJIN as a quasi-philosophical statement. To take just one example, TheWrap’s Todd Gilchrist asserted that the film could be interpreted as a meditation on reality, memory, and truth. After observing that the film “creates an intriguing fog of ambiguity between…what he’s [Hongwu] doing, and just how much of it is actually occurring,” Gilchrist ultimately stated the following: “Explicitly arguing that memories are partly experienced and partly manufactured, and that all filmmaking is fiction, it [LDJIN] nevertheless speaks to an irrefutable truth: even something that is a lie can feel more real than reality itself.”

To be sure, these two approaches to LDJIN are definitely both valid. But by analyzing the film solely in terms of its philosophical and autotelically cinematic merits, these critics ignore the film’s prominent sociopolitical dimension. Put differently, I’d argue that LDJIN is more than just a formal and philosophical marvel. Even though Bi himself has never explicitly said so in the many interviews he’s given about it, his film is very much a denunciation of the political and economic state of modern-day China.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

For evidence of the film’s sociopolitical attitude, consider the following. In recent years, Kaili, the town that Hongwu returns to, has been branded as an economic and cultural hub. For instance, aside from listing titles that Kaili has won – including, importantly, designations like “2018 Role Model City For Helping the Poor” and “Scientifically and Technologically Advanced Chinese City” – Kaili’s official website notes that the city has built robust rail, aerial, and highway networks that have ushered in a “golden age of development.” In a similarly laudatory vein, moreover, travel websites regularly cite Kaili for its natural beauty and “distinctive” local culture, calling it an “important” and “central” city that “attracts tourists from all directions.”

This strong public image, however, fits quite poorly with the view that we get of Kaili in LDJIN. Right from the film’s start, we’re thrust into an environment that’s characterized by empty construction sites, crumbling ruins, and overgrown weeds. In a scene that exemplifies the mise-en-scène of the movie as a whole, Hongwu at one point visits a “nightclub” where all the female employees are shown sitting around in a rubble-ridden courtyard: as indicated by the dilapidated walls that surround these women, moreover, this courtyard was actually once a building whose roof ended up giving way.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the dark tone of this overall portrayal of Kaili, LDJIN also offers a bleak depiction of Kaili’s transportation systems and networks in particular. Throughout the film, whatever transport structures we see – decrepit tunnels, rusty railways, unpaved roads – invariably look run-down and outdated. Most strikingly, in contrast to the sleek bullet trains for which China has become renowned, the trains we see in LDJIN are weighty freight vehicles that are more reminiscent of the kinds of trains you see in the Rust Belt. (So much for ushering in a “golden age of development.”)

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Altogether, these various shots and mise-en-scène-related features paint a decidedly contrarian image of modern-day Kaili. Far from reinforcing Kaili’s official reputation as a flourishing hub, Bi’s Kaili is marked by poverty and underdevelopment, a city on which larger trends of modernization and technological advancement have yet to leave their mark. Given that Hongwu spends much of the film in a brooding, melancholic state, moreover, Bi also makes an implicit link between this economic malaise and a rise in feelings of spiritual emptiness, as though people suddenly felt that their lives lacked direction.

In this sense, then, the analyses that many critics have provided of LDJIN are legitimate but incomplete. Bi’s work certainly does a lot of remarkable things on autotelically cinematic and abstractly philosophical levels. But in light of the contrast it establishes between itself and Kaili’s public reputation, LDJIN should also be recognized as an act of social rebellion. Like two other Chinese films that premiered in 2018, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still and Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, Bi’s work is in many ways a commentary on 21st-century China, offering a depiction of the uneven (and also frequently negative) effects of the country’s sudden, rapid rise to prominence.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

From here, I’d also argue that LDJIN is superior to Ash Is Purest White (henceforth White) and An Elephant Sitting Still (henceforth Elephant) – two films that, as mentioned, share LDJIN’s interest in depicting the underside of modern-day China. The main reason I’d make this claim stems from the differences between each film’s cinematography. Like many films, on the one hand, White and Elephant generally feature shots that are anchored to the characters’ physical presences. Put differently, whether they’re depicting the characters themselves or environments that these characters frequent, the typical raison d’être of White and Elephant’s shots is to deepen our understanding of where characters physically are or what they’re physically doing. 

A good place to see how LDJIN bucks this convention comes in a one-minute-long shot around 40 minutes in. From a perch by an open window, the camera initially looks down on a freight train that’s arriving in Kaili. Shortly after the train has come to a stop, the camera then pans to the right and lands on the figure of Hongwu, who, we discover, is sitting by the window. After a few seconds, Hongwu gets up and exits the frame; instead of following him, however, the camera pans back to the open window to watch the train as it pulls out of the station.

In many ways, this shot turns Hongwu, the film’s supposed protagonist, into an incidental presence. For one, the fact that Hongwu only comes into sight after the camera’s rightward pan makes his appearance in the shot seem coincidental, as though the camera happened to “bump into” him while exploring the environment around the windowsill. Equally revealing, moreover, is the fact that the camera doesn’t follow Hongwu after he leaves the frame. Far from signifying any real interest in Hongwu, the camera’s leftward pan to the window indicates its greater interest in the exiting train, as though Hongwu were only a passing attraction that could occupy the camera’s attention in between the train’s arrival and departure.[1]

Taken together, these various aspects of the shot point to its decidedly unconventional raison d’être. Instead of attaching itself to a character’s physical presence, this train shot makes Hongwu seem like a superfluous add-on. Given the number of shots in LDJIN that are similar to this one, one could consequently argue that in LDJIN, the presences of characters don’t necessarily determine where the camera looks, and that sort of character disempowerment sets LDJIN apart from presence-motivated films like White and Elephant.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Ultimately, LDJIN’s cinematography takes on particular significance when you consider the emotional state of the film’s characters. As mentioned earlier, after all, Hongwu and the other characters spend much of LDJIN in a state of aimlessness and spiritual confusion. In that sense, you could say that they’re characterized by feelings of alienation and impotence, as though they lacked any meaningful sense of agency or control vis-à-vis the direction of their lives.

Compare this depiction of Hongwu’s emotional state with the film’s cinematography. As discussed above, LDJIN’s camerawork doesn’t revolve around the characters’ physical presences, instead providing shots that treat them as merely secondary points of interest. Since this kind of camerawork isn’t “controlled” by the characters’ presences, moreover, you could say that it mirrors Hongwu’s aforementioned feelings of impotence. In this way, the “narrative” themes of LDJIN are reinforced by its form, creating a symmetry between style and content that White and Elephant possess only to a lesser extent.

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.

To quickly sum up: Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night has been acclaimed for its philosophical and autotelically cinematic daring. But while Bi’s work certainly deserves this praise, that’s not all there is to it. In its depiction of a run-down, decidedly underdeveloped Kaili, the film offers sociopolitical commentary, subverting the conventional understanding of modern-day China as a prosperous economic powerhouse. And in contrast to Ash Is Purest White and An Elephant Sitting Still, Bi’s work also uses unorthodox cinematography to advance such commentary, featuring camerawork that literally speaks to the characters’ sense of impotence. Ultimately, I’d say these are two of the biggest reasons why Bi’s work deserves to be called a masterpiece.

***

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Starring: Huang Jue, Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang

Running Time: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Produced by: Shan Zuolong

Written by: Bi Gan

Directed by: Bi Gan

[1]: For comparison’s sake, a corresponding “train shot” appears towards the beginning of White. In this particular shot, the camera initially fixes its gaze on a moving freight train; it then pans right to show us the protagonist, who’s sitting in a car that’s driving alongside the railway towards the camera. In a telling indication of its intentions, however, the camera does not subsequently pan back to the train. Rather, it continues to follow the car as the car makes a left turn and drives towards the hometown of the protagonist’s father. By following the protagonist in this manner, the camera reveals its attachment to characters’ physical presences.