Spending Some Time Thinking About A Long Day’s Journey Into Night

A topic Sam and I debate occasionally is how long should you wait after seeing a film before reviewing it? Should you review it immediately, or sit on it a while? For obvious reasons waiting too long will make the review null, as the film will have left theaters and no one will be considering if they should watch it or not. Yet, to me, reviewing it immediately afterward is nearly impossible. The true measure of most films to me, even those that aren’t particularly heady, are how much they “fester” in you. Do they stick with you? And how does your understanding of them, or your relationship with them, change over time? The best films are those I can’t forget, but whose relationship aren’t static. I frequently think over them time and again and emerge with new revelations and meanings, both because I have grown to understand the film better and because I have been growing.

A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (no relation to the Eugene O’Neill play as far as I can tell) is definitely a film you need to sit with, especially because it doesn’t really has a plot. More than most films it’s an experience, and while it certainly made me feel a certain way while watching it, I imagine it will blossom into something more the more time I sit with it. If that will be something beautiful or something sour, it’s sort of impossible to guess at right now.

Long Day’s Journey doesn’t have a plot, really. It has scenes. It has some sort of dream-like-logic. It has fragments of… memory? Dreams? Poetry? Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili because his father has died. In a clock his father frequently stared at he finds a photo of… an old lover? Friend? Who disappeared. He also has a green book a different or the same lover/friend gave him. He recalls his friend Wildcat, who was killed by a gangster, and tracks down the gangster’s girlfriend, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei) who is also maybe his long-lost friend and also maybe just someone who looks like the gangster’s girlfriend? It doesn’t really matter. I think there’s a plot in there somewhere, but it’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle that can be constructed a number of correct ways.

It’s boring to compare films to other films, but this is obviously Lynchian (and not just in returning home to a dead father a la Blue Velvet), and though I have… awkwardly never seen Tarkovsky I have read his book and would put money on this film being influenced by him as well. Both are focused more on images, motifs, themes, emotions, and even SCENES without really relying too much on narrative, because narrative can in some ways be directive in regards to how you should be feeling and thinking. Writer/Director Bi Gan presents you with a mood, but leaves you without specific direction. It’s evocative, not instructive. This can be frustrating sometimes – I know a lot of people, myself included, who can get lost trying to piece together a narrative because it’s easier to be presented with an idea or a story and then agree or disagree, and being purposely obtuse can feel distant and somehow pretentious – but, as with everything (and this is the stupid part of criticism) if it’s done WELL then, well, it’s great.

Does it work? For the most part, yeah. The movie feels eerie. Mystery comes both from the form, but also feels like a function within the movie. Luo is missing something. He’s lost his father. He’s lost his childhood friends – both the woman in the picture, and the woman who gave him the book (if they are not one and the same), and his friend Wildcat, and he clearly has lost himself in some significant way since he seems to so desperately be searching for something, even if both we and he aren’t entirely sure what it is. He refers to himself as a killer, and there’s hints that he’s done things both violent and interpersonal that he deeply regrets but finds impossible to set right. Noir films (which this comfortably falls under, even if it’s an abstracted form) are about mysteries, but they’re mostly about solving mysteries. This film argues in some ways mysteries can’t always be solved.

From a technical standpoint, the film is frankly a triumph. The score is haunting, forlorn, and exhilarating. The lighting is neon and dark. The both feel cool and slightly off-putting in exactly the way noir should, but neither feels like they’re ripped from the classic noir playbook. The cinematography is gliding and fluid and, in one of my favorite tricks, occasionally seems to change location (both time and space) in a single up or down tilt. The particular accomplishment is the much lauded hour-long 3D continuous shot, and it is a cool shot, a nearly impossible shot (they play ping pong and pool in it! If they mess up either they have to restart. Dear god). There is a lot of beautiful movement, changes of characters, exploration of space, and 3D just looks… so good now? But focusing on it, because it is such a technical marvel, takes away from the rest of the film, which is good in it’s own right. Shots shouldn’t be lauded just because they’re challenging or inventive or ambitious. They only count if they service the rest of the film. Focusing on “challenging” doesn’t say anything. I’m not sure what the 3Dness shot adds, necessarily, but I’m willing to keep thinking on it.

I’m only a day out from A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but I sort of want to see it again. There’s more to pick apart. For the time being, I give it 8 wholly eaten apples out of 10 flying ping pong paddles, with the happy caveat that could, and should, change as time goes on.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • I swore the green dress Tang Wei wears in this movie was a reference to Vertigo, but apparently the closest Kim Novak gets to wearing green is a green and black shawl? What movie am I thinking of? A Hitchcock? Or did I make that up?
  • My Dad’s metric for how good a piece of media is is how long it sticks in his head, which is why he says Breaking Bad is the best show he’s ever seen even though he never wants to watch it again. He would absolutely hate this film. Hi, Dad!
  • I still think Metrograph’s seats are unnecessarily uncomfortable and I don’t understand why they built them that way.
  • I’m a big believer that people should consume film wherever, whenever, and however they prefer to consume it, but I’m still happy with films that demand to be seen in theaters, and this is sort of one of them – that 3D just… first off I don’t know where you get those glasses, but on the big screen, it just works.
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