When his father dies, a man from rural China (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown, and begins searching for a woman he once loved (Tang Wei). Through a fragmented series of flashbacks, he recalls how they met, had a pregnancy scare, plotted to murder her gangster boyfriend, and were eventually caught. Then, after falling asleep in a movie theater, he has a long, meandering dream about his mother, his unborn son, and a woman who looks very much like the one he’s searching for.
I went into Long Days Journey Into Night expecting to hate it. After all, it’s 2 and a half hours long, it has no plot, no real resolution, and the second half is a 50-minute, unbroken tracking shot. This is a movie with “pretentious” written all over it. And yet, when I walked out of the theater, I found myself oddly exhilarated. I didn’t hate the movie. In fact, I quite liked it.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t think this is a flick that will appeal to most people. As a matter of fact, I’m certain that the only ones who’ll truly appreciate it are critics and film buffs; the type of people who see a lot of movies, and really enjoy dissecting cinema. Everyone else will probably find it insufferable. Then again, this movie did do quite well upon its release in China, thanks in no small part to some misleading marketing that sold the film as a mainstream romance, as opposed to an art house flick. But I digress.
This is a movie that, like the works of David Lynch, operates on dream logic. What I mean by that is, it only makes sense if you think of it as happening in a dream. The film actually shows that in a very literal manner, since the second half occurs inside the protagonist’s mind while he’s sleeping, and is much more coherent. Especially when compared to the first part of the movie, which is rather disorienting. In the first half, scenes are shown out of order, making it hard to tell what time period you’re watching, and the cinematography is unflattering. Virtually every shot of the main character is from behind or in profile. And even when the director shoots his face head on, there’s always something in the way, like a piece of glass or a window frame. I guarantee you that this was deliberate, since the film is all about memory, about grasping for people and things in your mind when they’re just out of reach. The visuals support this theme, since they obscure the protagonist and most of the characters from our view, never allowing us to fully see what we want. Then, when we enter the dream, where the visuals are clear, and the action plays out linearly, and in real-time, things start to make sense. The fragmented, seemingly random information we got in the first half, like how the main character’s mother ate apples when she was sad, or how he always wanted to teach his son to play ping pong, manifest as literal images and events. As a representation of the unconscious, of our brains taking random thoughts and creating a new reality in our dreams, this film is unmatched. I’ve seen plenty of movies, like Inception or A Nightmare On Elm Street, which take place in dreams, but don’t feel like it. This film does. It’s as random, fragmented, and “from the unconscious” as real dreams are, and for that reason, coupled with some impressive technical achievements, like the aforementioned tracking shot, I do think this movie is worth watching. It’s not for everyone. It’s long, confusing, has no real arc or resolution, but it’s fascinating and highly unique. If you love art house cinema, or are a fan of David Lynch, check this out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.