By Dennis Lim in the July-August 2018 Issue
The two features that the 29-year-old Chinese director Bi Gan has completed in his young, astonishing career are at once alien and familiar. Even while calling to mind dozens of other films, the Locarno prizewinner Kaili Blues (2015) and the recent Cannes entry Long Day’s Journey Into Night are like nothing you’ve seen before. This paradox is central to the effect of Bi’s work, which engages, in both form and content, the slipperiness of time and the vagaries of memory. Akin to UFOs on the predominantly realist landscape of the festival circuit, his movies are even more incongruous against the backdrop of independent Chinese cinema, from which Western audiences tend to expect state-of-the-nation communiqués and sociopolitical critiques. Not that Bi’s films are untethered from reality—quite the contrary, they are rooted in a specific location and culture and, I would argue, generational sensibility. What sets him apart is his uncommonly bold and expansive quest to refine the filmic vocabulary of dreams and memories. Like many great filmmakers—from Alain Resnais and Andrei Tarkovsky to David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, all of whom he recalls to varying degrees—Bi seems to believe that new realms of cinema are possible in making the immaterial material. It’s a challenge as old as the medium itself, but Bi takes a distinctly 21st-century approach, bringing to bear the tools of digital cinema and the fruits of easy-access cinephilia.
In only two films, Bi has established a world entirely his own, centered on his native province of Guizhou in southwest China. At first glance, his narratives seem overstuffed and convoluted, though their fundamental movements are simple, indeed archetypal, usually involving a return, a journey, a search. Broadly speaking, his is a cinema of absence, in which stories are set in motion by vanished people and lost time. The traversal of space and time is at the heart of Bi’s films, which rely on experiments in montage and, more conspicuously, on feats of continuous motion to suggest the collapse and transcendence of physical space as well as the uncanny interweaving of multiple temporalities. Kaili Blues features a 41-minute tracking shot that follows its characters on various modes of conveyance, along mountain roads and down back alleys, across a river by boat and by bridge, covering several miles in the vicinity of a riverfront village. The second half of Long Day’s Journey Into Night consists of an hour-long, gravity-defying sequence shot—post-converted to 3-D—that plunges its protagonist (and occasionally his point of view) down from a hilltop to a labyrinthine complex of semi-abandoned buildings, via zip line and drone.
Kaili Blues opens in the titular city, Bi’s home-town, where Chen, a middle-aged poet and ex-convict, works at a down-at-heel clinic. (The actor, Chen Yongzhong, is Bi’s uncle, who also appeared in his 2012 short, Diamond Sutra aka The Poet and the Singer.) Chen is also a caretaker to his nephew Weiwei (Luo Feiyang), the son of Chen’s volatile half-brother, who goes by Crazy Face (Xie Lixun). Bi introduces his characters and their surroundings in a vivid, fragmentary 30-minute pre-credit sequence, often surveying the ramshackle locations (water-stained interiors, junk-filled lots) with circular pans. Cryptic inserts—a man and a woman kicking a disco ball back and forth, a pair of embroidered blue slippers floating above a riverbed—acquire meaning only retroactively. The camera isolates and lingers on objects—an oscillating fan, an umbrella, a batik print, the omnipresent mirrored ball—granting them totemic significance and calling to mind the Dadaist poet Louis Aragon’s remark that their mere appearance on the movie screen transforms innocuous things “to the point where they take on menacing or enigmatic meanings.” The tone often tips into the surreal, as when Chen goes looking for bananas in an underground tunnel or when characters and news reports matter-of-factly discuss the appearance of a Sasquatch-like “wild man.” Spaces are liminal and unstable: a rickety amusement-park ride passes through an improbable overgrowth of greenery; Chen’s house is situated almost directly under a waterfall; without warning or explanation, an image of a moving train appears projected on a wall.
Among other things, Kaili Blues affords a glimpse of a part of China rarely seen on screen: the subtropical region of Guizhou, verdant and humid, with its many rivers, caves, and steep limestone formations. Guizhou is also home to several ethnic minority groups, who account for more than a third of its population. Bi is himself from the Miao minority, and traditional Miao culture—in the form of the lusheng, a bamboo wind instrument—factors into the plot. Bi, who studied literature, repurposes some of his own poems for Kaili Blues; Chen recites them on the soundtrack, where they function—like so much else in this waking dream of a movie—as periodic inducements to a trance state. Even key plot points, including much of Chen’s backstory, are embedded within the dreamier passages, emerging like bolts from the unconscious: a long shot through the windshield of a moving car is accompanied by a drowsy conversation in which Chen seems to learn (though surely he already knew) that his wife is dead.
A couple of parallel quests eventually turn Kaili Blues into a road movie. Chen leaves Kaili in search of Weiwei, who has been sold off by Crazy Face. Chen has also been entrusted by Guanglin (Zhao Daqing), an elderly female colleague, to deliver a couple of keepsakes—a cassette tape and a floral-print shirt—to a long-lost friend, possibly a lover, from the days of the Cultural Revolution. The journey brings him to the village of Dangmai, which gradually reveals itself as a kind of time-warped Tarkovskian Zone. Chen approaches, wanders through, and departs Dangmai in a single shot, the camera occasionally leaving his side to accompany other characters and, at one point, take in a roadside concert. As it proceeds, this homespun tour de force of coordination and choreography introduces logical impossibilities, a subtle short-circuiting of time. Are these memories or premonitions, or some combination thereof? The young man who offers Chen a ride on his motorcycle could be Weiwei, albeit a decade older, and the hairdresser who gives him a shampoo resembles his dead wife.
One way to consider the long take is in terms of Bazinian realism: an uninterrupted shot preserves the unity of time and space. Just as often, though, it is a self-conscious demonstration of directorial prowess, where what counts is the illusion of continuity, as in Birdman and its ilk. Made on a budget of 1 million yuan (just over $150,000) and with first-time cinematographer Wang Tianxing, Kaili Blues does not exactly belong to either category. The seams sometimes show in Bi’s tracking shot, visibly smoothed out with post-production stabilizing. Here the goal is only partly to immerse the viewer in a given environment; Bi is more concerned with pushing to the limit Tarkovsky’s concept of “time-pressure”—the intensity that builds within a shot—until it bursts the banks of reality as we know it. It’s a profound metaphysical trick achieved through the simplest sleight of hand: an edit often signals a shift in time, and Bi’s perverse refusal to cut enables the co-existence of numerous timelines.
The quote from the Diamond Sutra, the sacred Buddhist text, that opens Kaili Blues states that neither the past mind, the present mind, nor the future mind can be attained, and the film’s ultimate point is the elusiveness of a single, stable reality. To be sure, there are other non-spiritual contexts in which to consider Bi’s extended shot. Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki, the directors of the one-shot documentary People’s Park (2012), which captures in a single 75-minute take the panorama of leisure and revelry within an urban park in Chengdu, China, have invoked the tradition of Chinese scroll painting, which seems an apposite reference point for the wandering trajectory—from one discrete scene to another—of Bi’s highly mobile camera. Also instructive in this regard are David Hockney’s astute comments on the workings of time, space, and narrative in a 17th-century scroll painting by Wang Hui, as captured in the 1998 Philip Haas documentary A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China. For Hockney, this 72-foot scroll invites a way of seeing that—unlike Western perspective painting—prizes the freedom of the viewer and allows for a multiplicity of simultaneous vantages. For his part, Bi, wryly self-deprecating in interviews, credits his aptitude for long takes to his background as a wedding videographer, just as he traces the prevalence of hair salons and traveling shots in his films to his mother being a hairdresser and his father a driver.
Simply put, Bi is interested in cinema’s potential to create mental space as well as to convey physical sensation (it’s telling that his list of 10 favorite recent movies includes both Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity). His ambitions are further crystallized in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which has a clearly demarcated two-part structure, the first half an achronological mosaic, the second a nocturnal dream. The film extends the universe of Kaili Blues into genre territory, essentially performing a remix of sorts on a considerably bigger budget, with a more polished aesthetic and movie stars like Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang in the cast. Bi says he was thinking of films like Double Indemnity and Vertigo, and the noir trappings are apparent from the opening sequence, with a wistful voiceover that suggests Wong Kar Wai (“Anytime I saw her, I knew I was in a dream again”), a lilting score (by Lim Giong and Point Hsu), and the light from a neon sign spilling into a hotel room. The protagonist, Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), is another solitary man adrift, haunted by loss and regret. He journeys to Kaili, where various talismanic objects—a photo with a phone number on the back, tucked inside a broken clock; a green book containing a spell that can make a house spin—summon a flood of memories. (“It’s living in the past that’s scary,” one character remarks.) In Kaili for his father’s funeral, Luo recalls the death of an old friend named Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi), and a woman he once loved, Wan Qiwen (Tang), whose gangster boyfriend killed Wildcat. The film enacts a woozy tug-of-war between past and present, or perhaps between real and imagined. As Luo flashes back to his illicit romance with this idealized femme fatale, only ever seen in a green dress, he questions the veracity of his memories. In the present day, he goes in search of Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang), a hairdresser for whom he once worked, and for Wan Qiwen, who may now have a different name.
For its first half, Long Day’s Journey fosters a mood of narcotic confusion. Events are ephemeral, identities mutable. The past is murky, and the present no less disorienting given the abundance of vague, murmured conversations that shift gears or trail off before you can grasp their import. All the while, the viewer is mindful of an imminent shift, thanks to the tongue-in-cheek opening intertitle: “This is NOT a 3-D film, but please join our protagonist in putting the glasses on at the right moment.” This juncture turns out to be shortly after the halfway mark when Luo, with some time to kill, enters a cinema. Only after we join him in slipping on our 3-D glasses does the title card appear.
What follows is one long, thrillingly seamless trip, an even more audacious and complicated feat than the tracking shot in Kaili Blues. (Because of schedule restrictions, Bi worked with three cinematographers this time; the long take was shot by David Chizallet, the French DP of Mustang.) Luo’s first encounter in this tactile 3-D dreamscape is with a smart-mouthed kid who may be the younger Wildcat. The boy transports him by scooter to a lookout point, where Luo descends via cable—the camera follows—to a pool hall halfway down the hill. The establishment’s manager seems to be none other than Wan Qiwen, though she insists she’s not. Locked in by a couple of young punks, Luo and Wan escape with the aid of a magic ping-pong paddle, which grants them the gift of flight. They levitate down to the village square, where a karaoke contest is in progress and a red-haired woman (Sylvia Chang again), armed with a flaming torch, is causing trouble… A tracking shot as lengthy and intricate as this is by necessity choreographed to the inch but also subject to happenstance, and Bi plays up the element of contingency: Luo’s passage through this long night (it’s the winter solstice) hinges at one point on the result of an impromptu game of table tennis and at another on someone’s ability to sink a pool ball under pressure; to increase the element of uncertainty, there’s even a temperamental horse to wrangle.
Long Day’s Journey operates on a principle of vertiginous doubling. The figures who exert a pull on Luo in the first part materialize in different form in the second. Almost every last detail—the out-of-season pomelo Wan craves, the apple Wildcat devours whole, musical motifs, incantations, the pattern of a prison window grill—is reprised or transmuted in Luo’s movie-activated dream. While Vertigo is the most obvious touchstone for this tale of obsession and doppelgängers, the structure owes something to Mulholland Drive, likewise a film of mirrored halves, one completing the other. Bi, who has referred to the Internet as a vast movie library, suffers no anxiety of influence. He speaks openly about his admiration of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Apichatpong, Lynch, and Tarkovsky—in Long Day’s Journey he has a glass of water wobble off a table in a nod to Stalker—and his acknowledged inspirations are by no means restricted to cinema. In the press notes for the new film, he cites Patrick Modiano’s memory-fogged novels and Chagall’s lovers-in-flight paintings. Even his titles are meant to spark connections, referencing here not just Eugene O’Neill but in the Chinese title (Last Evenings on Earth) Roberto Bolaño. Kaili Blues in Chinese was originally named for Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet before Bi settled on Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky Brothers novel that inspired Stalker.
The dense cluster of associations, both within and without the films, are part of Bi’s intended effect. Even as we experience them, his movies have the muffled quality of a distant memory, a half-remembered dream. If the first half of Long Day’s Journey seems to depict one kind of dream state—defined by constant slippage, the ground shifting beneath one’s feet—the second simulates another, a lucid dream, the embodiment of a free-floating consciousness. Bi knows well enough to avoid the clichéd pitfall of so many trance narratives: the “it was all a dream” twist ending. Long Day’s Journey Into Night performs a different kind of trick, imbuing its technical acrobatics with a tremendous poignancy: refusing to look away, Bi keeps the camera rolling, the characters in motion, the room spinning, the sparkler that signifies transience impossibly burning, all to forestall the waking that is a kind of death.
Dennis Lim is the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.