Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Top Ten List #6 Long Day's Journey Into Night (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan)

Director Bi Gan

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Di qiu zui hou de ye wan)       A-                   
China  France  (138 mi)  2018 d:  Bi Gan

Bi Gan is capturing the world’s attention with his new film, opening at the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, as he’s redefining what cinema can be, creating intoxicating imagery through a daring and innovative style, where the final hour is thoroughly enchanting and transfixing, shot in a single, unbroken take in 3D, which he apparently captured on his 5th and final take, cutting his earlier attempts short, dissatisfied by elements of the production design which did not meet his aesthetic criteria.  Bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the Eugene O’Neill title, instead the Chinese title, Last Evenings On Earth, comes from a short story by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, a writer whose works are elusive and powerfully suggestive.  Similarly, Bi Gan has created a world where dreams and memories intersect, becoming at times thoughts that can only be imagined, that never happened in real life, but are just as vital and relevant to the existential lead character, absorbed in his own thoughts and his own life, as in his mind they could have happened, as the mind wanders, yet may have existed only in his dreams.  This haunting netherworld is what interests this director, as he’s nothing less than brilliant in his ability to visually convey fractured stories that fully capture the viewer’s interest and imagination, where nearly all rational thought ceases to exist.  It’s a totally different style of film, to be sure, yet it’s utterly captivating.  Handed a pair of 3D glasses when you enter the theater, yet a disclaimer opens the film, “This is NOT a 3D film, but please join our protagonist in putting the glasses on at the right moment.” 

Divided into two distinct halves, the summer and winter solstice, when the lead character enters a rundown movie theater about an hour into the film and puts on a pair of 3D glasses, the screen turns dark and the final hour officially begins, an enthralling interior venture into the unknown, introduced by the title sequence.  It should be said that the director’s first film was equally mesmerizing, 2016 Top Ten List #2 Kaili Blues (Lu bian ye can) (2015), and arguably more emotionally affecting, though the director was discouraged by the low-tech production values, featuring a remarkable 41-minute unbroken shot that is the centerpiece of that film, where most of it is shot outdoors from the back of a motorbike.  Both are moody and atmospheric memory plays where the past, the present, and an imagined future are seamlessly merged into an impressionistic mosaic that can’t distinguish between illusion and reality, where there’s little action to speak of, with the camera caught up in a stream-of-conscious mindset that silently observes the constantly shifting world around them, arriving unexpectedly at one place, eavesdropping on conversations, following compete strangers, as if on a whim, mysteriously intervening at times, retreating up and down a labyrinth of rocky stairs, where there is constant movement, yet the mood is defined by passivity, where a nocturnal dream language prevails.  Even in the opening, a voiceover narration reminds us that movies aren’t truthful, “The difference between films and memory is that films are always false,” as they’re based upon memories that are only partially truthful and partly made-up. 

Kaili is a place in the southwest of China known more for its mining industry than producing filmmakers, yet it is the home of the director and the setting for both his first two films, where the river and distant mountains are recognizable landmarks in each, also the rocky steps traversed by the camera that are used in each film.  One of the interesting cultural aspects is the presence of the Miao minority, who were openly featured in the first film, with Bi himself from the Miao minority, yet here their music has been integrated into the film, adding an unseen yet spiritual dimension, yet overall the wondrous musical score was written by Point Hsu and Giong Lim, Hou Hsaio-hsien’s musical composer since GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE (1996), now working with Jia Zhang-ke as well.  The film has an intoxicated air of steamy romanticism, using a film noir style protagonist who doubles as the narrator, like a 40’s film happening in the future, starring Huang Jue as Luo Hongwu returning back to his hometown of Kaili for the death of his father, recalling the lush visuals of Wong Kar-wai, one of the major revelations of the 90’s, also a prominent influence on 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight by American director Barry Jenkins, as evidenced by a brief visual essay, Moonlight and Wong Kar-wai - YouTube (1:48).  It’s curious how nostalgia is evoked through period music, as Wong Kar-wai was notorious for his superb musical selection, Bi Gan, less so, showing a fascination for the music of pop singer Wu Bai, including 莫文蔚Karen Mok & 伍佰Wu Bai【堅強的理由Reason To Be Strong】我 ... YouTube (5:46), though his musical choices are less recognizable internationally, yet similarly ruminates on the past, routinely jumping back and forth in time, using names of characters in the film that are actual names of popular singers, though a running joke throughout the film is that they sound like the names of movie stars.  The device that sets the journey in motion is the removal of a clock on the wall, with Luo discovering an old photograph of a woman whose face has been burned away with a telephone number hidden in the back of the clock.  With this, the story begins in the sweltering heat, as we see the replacement of a lightbulb that is engulfed in a rain shower flooding the floor, where in a Tarkovsky motif, it appears to be raining indoors, as Kaili is a subtropical area where it often rains, especially during summer. 

“Everything began with the death of a friend,” recalling his childhood friend Wildcat (Lee Hong-chi) who ran up gambling debts he couldn’t pay back to a local gangster, ending up shot, his body found in an unused mine shaft.  Because of their connection he skipped town afterwards, looking back with regrets that he didn’t offer more help, eventually finding work as a casino manager.  Emerging from his past is Wan Qiwen, Tang Wei from Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Se, jie) (2007), the beautiful femme fatale in a strikingly alluring green dress.  When he says she looks familiar, she has none of it, calling his bluff, initially treating him with disdain, as she’s the girl of a crime boss, though later, like fractured memories, replaying the scene in different circumstances, she suggests it reminds her of a line from one of his stories in the green book he carries around with him.  Actually this book, along with several other collected items along the way (like in a treasure hunt), have magical properties, which only begins to describe the shifting moods that viewers encounter throughout, as it has the feel of an Odysseus-like mythological journey.  The production values are exponentially improved in this film, receiving a much bigger budget and an international crew from the likes of prominent filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Wong Kar-wai.  Using three cinematographers, he started with Yao Hung-I shooting the first part, working for several months before he had to return to Taiwan, taken over by Dong Jingsong, who shot Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai ri yan huo) (2014), with French cinematographer David Chizallet who shot Mustang (2015) concluding the final 3D shot.  These technical improvements elevate the lush visual design of the film to otherworldly heights, infinitely better than Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID (2009), literally transcending the artform, where stylistically this is one of the most accomplished films seen in years, where you’d have to go back to 2015 Top Ten List #9 The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) to find a more visually extravagant film. 
“Fragmented memories, are they real or not?”  The director intercuts Luo’s search for Wan with pieces of her whereabouts, mixing time spans, where her identity keeps changing over time, becoming fixated on a mythical idealization of the perfect woman who always remains in the past, with Wan seen only in flashbacks, finding them in the midst of a torrid love affair while also retracing his steps in pursuit of her, where the black hair of his youth is replaced by a more grizzled looking gray, visiting Wildcat’s mother (the illustrious Sylvia Chang), whose family restaurant has now closed, leading to a woman’s prison to see a friend of Wan’s (Bi Yanmin), showing her the photograph, instantly recounting their involvement together in petty crimes where only the prisoner was caught.  In one of the more unforgettable scenes, Luo approaches a beauty salon, viewing the proprietor playing a video arcade game of Dance Dance Revolution set to the throbbing music of Vengaboys - We like to Party! (The Vengabus) – YouTube (3:44), with the music providing an exhilarating rush of adrenaline.  While all the scenes with Wan are flashbacks, there are no sexy scenes together, as we’re never in the “now” of the moment, always dealing with the implications, their shared secrets, such as an aborted pregnancy (where he vows to teach their new child how to play ping pong), as she’s connected to a karaoke-obsessed crime boss Zuo Hongyan (Chen Yongzhong, the director’s uncle, who starred in his previous film), where they dream of escaping to Macao, telling him she’s thought this through many times before, but rejected it, as Zuo has promised to track her down, leaving her no possibility of escape.  She was the one who told him the story of the legendary green book, leaving it with him as they make their plans which never materialize.  Later he expounds on reacting to stress, suggesting one response is eating an entire apple, including the core, with the director driving the point home with a shot of Wildcat eating an entire apple.  In an abandoned hotel, Luo thinks he’s tracked her down, only to discover she was once a tenant there, but when she ran out of money she started telling him stories, later becoming his wife.  Now long divorced, the man confesses, “She was such a good storyteller, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was fake.” 

Searching through the demolished ruins in the hills above Kaili for a female karaoke singer who might be Wan Qiwen, performances don’t start for an hour, so he whiles away his time in the seedy theater, with the rest a singular dream, shot entirely in the dark of night, all captured in a single unedited shot, as we soon find ourselves in the cavernous dark of a murky cave lit by an oil lamp, most likely the same mine shaft where Wildcat was found, where he’s surprised by a precocious young boy who claims he lives there (Luo Feiyang), who could be a younger resurrected version of Wildcat, but who could also be the son he imagined having with Wan Qiwen, as he’s quickly challenged to a game of ping pong by the young upstart, promising to show Luo the way out if he wins, which he does masterfully by utilizing the spin serve, which completely catches the kid by surprise.  Hopping a ride on his motorbike, he takes him to a cliff edge, taking a zip-line aerial wire to the other side, landing just outside a pool hall, introducing himself to the female manager, Kaizhen (also Tang Wei in a retro hairstyle), feeling a close connection, but she coldly tells him to get lost, “I’m not the woman you think I am.”  Yet he persists, challenging the young punks at the pool table who are bothering her to scram and get lost if he makes a combination shot (if he misses, that master shot must restart!).  When they find themselves locked inside, as the punks grabbed and threw away the key, Luo resorts to magic, twirling the ping pong paddle given to him earlier by the young kid which allows them to fly, a unique theatrical sensation, finding their way to the outdoor karaoke bar, set in a haphazard carnivalesque atmosphere with a ticket counter and food items on display, where a scant crowd is sitting around, barely paying any attention.  Luo gets sidetracked by a mysterious woman carrying a torch of fire (Sylvia Chang again, this time in a red wig), wandering through the outskirts of town and back again, catching up to Kaizhen in a backstage dressing room, the final act on the program ending just before dawn, finding themselves having a moment, getting reacquainted, taking a walk, landing in the hollowed out remains of his old home, where legend allows the house to spin if he recites the right words of poetry, sharing a kiss, becoming a visually transfixing moment, with viewers sharing an artist’s meticulously choreographed visualization of cinema exploring the empty spaces of a dream.  Despite a carry-over of similar themes from his previous movie, nonetheless no one expected a film of this magnitude, bravely providing fertile territory for new growth, cleverly utilizing 3D as a parallel state of consciousness, a hidden world complete with its own magical secrets, a shock to the senses, reminiscent to inhabiting the wondrous imagination of Gabriel García Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude for the very first time.  

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