There are many talented young filmmakers out there but no one impressed me with their first couple of highly ambitious and accomplished films like a 30-year old Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan did. The sheer technical prowess and visual and literal poetry of his debut film Kaili Blues in 2015 left me speechless.
And ever since its debut at Cannes last year, Bi's sophomore effort, Long Day's Journey into Night had become, even before I found out that the last half of the film was shot in one continuous take in 3D, my most anticipated film of 2018. When I finally saw it at NYFF, I was in cinema heaven.
Cut from the same philosophical cloth as Resnais and Tarkovsky and his visual language llneage traces back to that of Hitchicock, Lynch and Wong Kar Wai, watching Bi's film feels like a waking dream and unlike any other film experience I've had previously.
The film became an unlikely success in mainland China, thanks to its distributor's sly marketing campaign last winter, enraging many moviegoers who were expecting a linear narrative romance that is shot in 3D.
So without further ado, here is my conversation with Bi Gan:
Screen Anarchy: I watched the film at last year’s NYFF. It was definitely my favorite film last year. Even though I don’t want to ask you about technical questions, I can’t help being overwhelmed by its mesmerizing visuals. Obviously I am talking about the last, uncut 57 minute 3D portion of the film. What I’m wondering is, 3D technology is usually used by filmmakers to give the audience the experience close to reality. But here you are using it to the opposite effect. You are trying to emulate a dream. How did this idea come about? And what do you make of the 3D technology?
Bi Gan: My first film Kaili Blues was about time. So when I decided to make the next film, I kept going back to the ideas of dreams and memories. I thought about what would be the best way to express that. Then I thought I would find it maybe in 3D.
Of course in the past, when they use that kind of technology, it’s mostly in commercial films. Art films were not utilizing 3D in that way, except for some experimental films. I wanted to combine art film and 3D to portray dreams.
I thought 3D would be best suited for portraying more ‘realistic reality’ of a dream in a long take just because the whole sequence is in night time and it’s a long night. I wanted us to lose ourselves in this different dimension. So even though the film is only a hundred and twenty minutes, when we think back to it, it is very much like our memory which is three dimensional and that’s how I wanted to portray it and also have the audience experience it after the fact like a lingering memory.
It was a big box office success in China for a small indie film. How did that happen? Were you surprised by its success?
When I did Kaili Blues, I made it with nothing. Yet it made several millions locally at the box office. People around me were pretty surprised that the film became kind of a minor success.
In terms of this film's release, I wasn’t surprised at the box office considering how they promoted the film- as a romance film, but what was surprising for me was after people have watched it, they told me ‘you are not a crossover director. You are still just an arthouse director.’
Hearing that gave me a jolt of self-check because I was made to believe that I was an art house director whose work has a crossover appeal, back to just an art house director. I was put in place. (laughs)
The audience might have been sold short on romance, but I’d like to think that your film is a game changer for Chinese independent cinema. It seems like a different landscape now than the 1990s and 2000s when Jia Zhangke started making films. Is there a bigger market and support for independent films in China?
For general audience, they just want to know whether the film is good or not. It’s not about whether my film is an art house film. So when a film like Long Day is released, the audience doesn’t quite understand what to make of it.
For a lot of them, this film is the first film they watch that is not a widely seen commercial movie. And so they still might not accept it. But at least they watched it. So that’s kind of a positive step.
But there are so many movie theaters in China at the moment, doesn't that allow more room for art house films to be shown?
More screens don’t mean that they will be showing art house films. It simply means there are more screens to show more commercial movies, So no. there are still less opportunities to show anything other than commercial movies.
I have to ask, how many takes did you do of that single take?
The sequence took two tries to make it happen. The first time we did three takes. It took one to two month of preparation and all of those takes did not work. So we had to go back in and prepare all over again. So the second time around, it was five takes and it wasn’t until the last two takes that we succeeded and it was the final take that we see on the screen.
Aside from all the technical stuff, shooting it at night and in the rain, was it a difficult shoot for you?
For me, filmmaking is always hard. So at the end of the day, I achieve something worthwhile then that is good enough for me. But the hardest one was the 3D night shoot. 2D shots we could adjust lighting but for the 3D one take, we had to prep everything way in advance and you can’t move anything around so it was a very stressful experience. Because of lighting master Wang Ju Ming, we were able to accomplish what you saw on the screen in 3D.
Due to loose narrative, was it a challenge for the actors?
During the script level I was already working with the actors. I was describing what I want them to be doing. But it was a collaborative thing where I constantly asked them questions. It was the same even on set, to develop character traits and movement and stuff like that.
There is a sequence where an actor is eating an apple, that was a decided on set and was a very last minute, very collaborative decision. I like the film set to be very relaxed. I want actors to be relaxed. I try to have a relaxed, collaborative environment as much as possible.
Kaili looks mysterious and romantic at night. Is it like that only in your films or does it really have some mysterious properties?
So when my friends come to visit Kaili, they feel like I lied to them about what Kaili looks like. I mean, what you see on screen is a dream version loosely based on memories. But in real life Kaili is a 4th tier province in China. It’s very modern.
The good news about being in there is within twenty to thirty minutes you can drive down a winding roads to beautiful rivers. The sky is very blue and beautiful. But other than that, it’s a pretty much any other modern city with all the urban comforts you can find anywhere.
Oh damn. Really? That's disappointing.
Yeah, I lied to you with my films.
Can you talk about the significance of the color in the film? There is the color of green - the green book, the green dress. Then there is red.
When I was setting up the film, I wanted to set up the color for characters. I thought green would be a good color to represent the female lead. And as her personality changes to something more realistic, I wanted to slowly evolve it to red.
In classic mysterious female characters in films, whenever the door opens they disappear in to the background. Kaili itself is pretty green in general and so I liked the idea of her being in that green dress so she can disappear whenever into the background.
Love that canto pop, "Reason to be Strong" (by Karen Mok) and that melancholic Japanese song (by Naoko Ken) at the end. How did you decide on those songs?
Quite simple. I grew up listening to those songs. And I wanted them put in my movie.
Those are excellent, excellent choices. So what’s next for you?
I just started to write. I don’t know what it’s going to turn in to yet. I am in the process of writing things down.
Please keep making art films and I think the film is really tremendous and I hope the film makes a lot of money so you can make more art films. I thank you for talking to me.
Thank you. I will work really hard to make the next film.
Long Day's Journey Into Night has a limited release on April 12. Check Kino Lorber website for the city near you.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com