About halfway through the New York Film Festival screening of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” I put on my 3D glasses. No, I hadn’t arrived late for the show, the glasses hadn’t fallen off my head, nor did I simply forget to put them on earlier. In fact, I put them on at the exact moment during the movie when the main character, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), put his 3D glasses on.
There is a card that comes up at the start of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” explaining that the movie is not a 3D movie, but that there is a 3D sequence in the film and audiences should put their glasses on at the appropriate time. I am not entirely sure how writer/director Bi Gan would define a 3D movie, but it seems like “a movie with an extended 3D sequence, one that runs almost half the length of the movie” would satisfy the definition for most people. This then is a matter of semantics and just another thing for the viewer to question as the story, which is not an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play, unfolds.
The simplest explanation of the tale would say that the movie is one where our hero (or anti-hero) is on a hunt for the one that got away, his former girlfriend, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei). The first half of the film is a series of puzzle pieces, going backwards and forwards in time as we see the present day search and moments from the relationship in the past. The viewer is largely left to work out exactly how the pieces fit together, because even within the separate temporal periods things feel out of order.
Bi Gan has such a deftness with the story and its unfolding, however, that while there are undoubtedly puzzle pieces missing, the viewer is able to get enough of them together to have a general sense of what has taken place. It carries the audience through the long, slow, first half of the film, even if it isn’t enough to keep one entranced.
No, that entrancement happens during the second half of the movie, during the aforementioned 3D bit. At this point, we enter into the dream Luo Hongwu is having as he watches a movie. The entire 3D portion (I’m told it runs 55 minutes) appears to be one extended take inside this dream world. Whether it is indeed one take or not, it is a stunning feat of moviemaking.
Although the first half of the movie has some rich scenery and a distinct noir-esque style, this second half turns it up to 11. One senses just how complicated it was to put the shot together, just how much organization was required. It is breathtaking and undoubtedly one of the finest things to enter the theater in years (or longer).
The first half of “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” is largely forgettable. It is stylistic and at times intriguing, but it plods along at a pace that removes one from what is going on. One gets the sense of the relationship’s details, and we may be shown the highlights of the relationship, but there isn’t enough of anything to keep the viewer heavily invested. The second half, however, is a completely different thing. It is a wholly new film. It is more rich, more intriguing, more incredible. It is just as minimalist on story, if not more so, but the depth of the visuals and the camera work take it from a standard sort of journey to something above and beyond the everyday. It is more than worth seeing on the big screen for this portion alone. Bi Gan has created something incredible.
photo credit: Kino Lorber