Film In Conversation
BI GAN with Ethan Spigland
In Bi Gan's depictions of his hometown, Kaili, located in the mountainous Guizhou province in southwest China, the streets are unfailingly rain-soaked and it's always night. The buildings are abandoned and everything is beautifully decrepit. As Bi Gan explained to me, this is not the Kaili a visitor might encounter, but rather a shadow Kaili of his imagination. Long Day's Journey Into Night, the filmmaker's sophomore feature, is even more assured and technically impressive than his highly praised 2015 debut, Kaili Blues.
Weary and love-scarred protagonist Luo Hongwu (Jue Huang) returns to Kaili, his birthplace, after the death of his father. Haunted by memories of a woman, Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang), with whom he had a passionate affair there twenty years before, he searches for traces of her. Early in the film Hongwu follows an elusive woman in a green dress by car through a tunnel. She appears as a blurry apparition through the rain-streaked windscreen. Is she real or only a hallucination? Unable to escape the tug of memory, he drifts into the past: trysts with Qiwen in the flooded ruins of a house; the death of a childhood friend at the hands of thugs; Hongwu and Qiwen's attempts to flee her sadistic gangster boyfriend, Zuo Hongyuan (Yongzhong Chen). However, in Bi Gan's singular vision of Kaili, past, present and future bleed into each other incessantly.
For Gilles Deleuze, writing in the '80s, postwar films foreground time in a new way. The actors in modernist films become passive spectators, somnambulists no longer capable of reacting to situations. The real and the imaginary—past and present—become indiscernible, crystallize. And what we see in the crystal is time itself, no longer subordinated to movement, but presented directly. With Long Day's Journey Into Night, Bi Gan has fashioned a time crystal for our current era. Yet, it's also a journey through the collective memory of cinema itself. Hongwu resembles the archetypical noir protagonist, and his memories merge with images inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Wong Kar-wai.
At the 73 minute mark Hongwu slips into a movie theater and puts on 3D glasses. The spectators of Bi Gan's film are instructed to follow suit. What ensues is an almost hour-long continuous shot in 3D, as the disjointed memories of the first section give way to a single immersive take. Is this a film in the film? A dream? Events now take on an oneiric logic. Hongwu encounters a ping-pong playing boy who may be a ghost. A recited spell based on one of Bi Gan's own poems causes a room to spin, the camera circling 360 degrees around the pair of lovers in homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo. The roving camera winds its way through caves, glides alongside a scooter, and descends a zip line down into a village. At one point, a spinning ping-pong paddle, with a bird etched on both sides to produce the illusion of flight, as in a thaumatrope, magically empowers Hongwu and Kaizhen (Qiwen's doppelgänger) to fly above the city. A voiceover informs us that "films are always false, whereas memories mix truth and falsity." Yet, here cinema's basis in perceptual illusion provokes a genuine miracle. More than a virtuosic stunt, this section of the film renews our belief in the power of cinema to astonish and transport.
While Bi Gan was in town last October to present Long Day's Journey Into Night at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with him to discuss the wonders of his new film.
Ethan Spigland (Rail): Long Day's Journey Into Night blurs the real and imaginary, mixes past and present in a way such that one can no longer distinguish between levels of time. I wonder whether you could talk a little bit about the role of time and memory in the film?
Bi Gan: So, in terms of structure, the film consists of two parts. The first part deals with memory, and therefore, it is very fragmented and fractured, since memories are not linear. I used editing to create this fragmented narrative. For me, the second part is a dream. By using one continuous shot I tried to capture how time passes as the space around the characters begins to mutate.
Rail: I was struck by something I read that you said about the film—that it's more about movement through time than movement through space. So, when the camera's moving, it's a movement in or through time.
Bi: The first part is more narrative-focused and plants the seeds for the second half, which is more about time itself. The limitations of using one continuous take made it hard to tell a complex narrative. So in order for me to accomplish that, I wanted to juxtapose the second section with the condensed and fragmented narrative of the first section. And these two parts complement each other to tell the story, to make it a whole.
Rail: In some ways the second part is a film in a film, but it's also a dream.
Bi: So, usually when people think about films, their understanding is that films are made one shot after another, that it's a combination of many shots. That's the basic understanding of what a film is about or what it means. For me, in a dream it's just the opposite. Even though people might think that dreams are very fragmented and fractured, for me, a dream is one continuous take—one continuous shot. Films are not real, but in a dream, in a lucid dream, you have full consciousness and it's one continuous shot.
Rail: And therefore, in a certain sense, a dream can feel more real than a film, perhaps even more real than reality.
Rail: Maybe you can say a little bit about why you decided to use 3D for the second part of the film? Why was it important for you?
Bi: I wanted to distinguish between the two parts of the film. I could have played around with color; for example, one part could have been in color and the other part in black and white. Above all, I wanted to give the second part of the film a different texture. It's very intuitive, but my decision to use 3D was based on the specific content of the film. When you close your eyes, you have certain memories that come to mind in a fragmented and nonlinear way. But a lucid dream is very much three-dimensional in my head and in my imagination. So that's pretty much what I wanted to accomplish in going from the first half to the second half—suddenly all these fragmented thoughts become one continuous, three-dimensional, immersive dream. And that's why I wanted to shoot this part in 3D.
Rail: You're also concerned with the memory of cinema itself. Long Day's Journey Into Night is full of references to the history of film, to specific films and filmmakers. There are references in the film to Tarkovsky, to Hitchcock and Vertigo. Maybe you could talk a little bit about some of these references and the way you're using them in the film.
Bi: So, I think in terms of Vertigo, it also has a two-part structure.
Bi: Also, the female character in Vertigo has a double identity, and that's very much what you will see in Long Day's Journey Into Night as well. And when the male and female leads are planning to escape, to run away from her gangster boyfriend, I really wanted to capture that sense of danger, that sense of desperation, and I thought the best way to do that is to pay homage to Tarkovsky by having the glass slide across the table.
Rail: In relation to Vertigo, your film is also a kind of a ghost story and a film about desire, right? For me, Vertigo is perhaps the greatest film ever made about the nature of desire.
Bi: Another similarity is the enigma surrounding the female character. She's very mysterious.
Rail: Can you say something about the way you use color in the film? Certain colors are associated with specific characters. For example, the female character is associated with the color green.
Bi: Guizhou is a very mountainous region with a lot of vegetation. So I thought that since this is a character who will disappear frequently, if she wears red, she will be very, very conspicuous. I thought that if she wears a green dress she will definitely blend in with the landscape, and this will create the feeling that she's frequently vanishing. Perhaps I thought too much about it, but that's the way I created this particular character. And I think there's also some connection with Vertigo as well, where the color green plays such a crucial role.
Rail: Were you at all thinking about David Lynch in this film? Mulholland Drive is another two-part film, which is also inspired by Vertigo.
Bi: Not just Mulholland Drive, but many of his films had a huge impact on me in terms of my cinematic vocabulary and the way I create unique qualities for the characters. And I think that when I was writing the script, I was watching Blue Velvet, because at the time I was researching for this enigmatic female character, so I watched a lot of suspense and detective films, and Blue Velvet was on my list.
Rail: You spent a long time experimenting with 3D cameras and then eventually ended up doing it as a post-production process. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that experience.
Bi: So yes, we tried out different equipment and cameras, starting out with actual 3D cameras, because conceptually I thought that it would be more real; I didn't want the 3D to look fake. So we did a lot of tests with different cameras. I wanted to know exactly what these cameras would capture. We tested these small German-made 3D cameras and realized that we could not capture images in low light situations. Also, even though they're small, we realized that it would be difficult for us to maneuver them, to attach them to a drone, for example. The whole process was like launching a spacecraft, just so riddled with difficulties and challenges. Later on I discovered that the actual difference between shooting in 3D and converting 2D into 3D as a post-process is very, very insignificant. The difference was not as visible as I had imagined. So I thought that if we are well-versed in the 2D production, and we know exactly how to control the light and capture the images we want to capture, why not use that and then convert it in post-production, and make that lucid dream and memory come to life in 3D?
Rail: Both your films are set in Kaili, and I'm wondering, you know, of course it's your hometown… Is there something you're trying to capture or show about Kaili that you want to share with the world?
Bi: So, the simple answer to that is because I grew up there and I lived there, this is my community; this is the place that I'm most familiar with. I do think that just like other cities in China, it's going through transformations, and I really think that what I'm trying to capture in my films, in these two films, are the shadows of Kaili. It is something that I find it very attractive, very charming, something that I want to be seen by the audience.
Rail: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by the shadows of Kaili?
Bi: So actually, when people watch my films and they come away feeling that Kaili looks the way I have shown it on the big screen in my films. But when they visit Kaili they realize that it is just like any other city with great infrastructure, high speed trains, great shops. So for me, yes, on the surface you might have this Kaili that can be seen by people, but there is also another Kaili, a shadow Kaili—parts of the city that are long abandoned and neglected. Somehow, these parts, which now form part of my personal memories, are the ones I want to capture in my films rather than this very sleek modern Kaili that people tend to know.
Rail: In Long Day's Journey Into Night many of the places are decrepit, falling apart, ruins in a sense.
Bi: Yes, that especially was very attractive and charming to me. And they are in the shadows and I think that they need to be seen—to be brought back into the daylight.
Rail: I know that you're also a poet, and I'm curious what role, if any, does poetry play in Long Day's Journey Into Night?
Bi: So, in terms of poetry… Unlike other major cities like New York, where you have a lot of museums, in Kaili there aren't many artistic outlets or institutions. Just being artistic, as a concept, is not really prevalent in the environment I find myself in. And I don't really talk to my friends about poems or recite my poems to them; this is something very personal—it's almost my personal mythology. And I don't even see them as poems. It's just something I do to pass time and to entertain myself. With Kaili Blues, since it's a very personal film, very close to me, I felt that I had the liberty to incorporate a lot of my own poetry. However, with Long Day's Journey Into Night, I wanted to make it more accessible to the audience, and therefore, I tried to cut down on the personal mythology that I used in the film, so I only selected a few of my poems. One of these moments in the film is the spell that causes the room to spin—the spell the main character Hongwu recites is one of my poems. So—to me, there are many different ways in which we can accomplish this, this sense of being poetic—I can use actual poems, I can use voiceover, or I can use editing itself.
Rail: Which other filmmakers do you admire? Which have influenced you?
Bi: Hou Hsiao-hsien, in terms of playing with time and long takes. Growing up I watched Stephen Chow all the time. He's my idol, Stephen Chow. [laughs]
Rail: What about Wong Kar-wai?
Bi: Of course. When we start to learn how to make films, his films are the first ones that we watch.
Rail: And Jia Zhangke?
Bi: Yes. And Jiang Wen. He's also a Chinese director. So I watch all types of films from very different directors, and they're all inspirational.
Rail: In moving from Kaili Blues to Long Day's Journey Into Night, what were you trying to accomplish that was different or new?
Bi: To me, it's always about realizing something that is close to what I have in my head while writing the script. And how, with that goal in mind, I use the resources I have to actualize the ideal outcome for the script.
Rail: Although for Long Day's Journey Into Night you had more resources, right?
Bi: It's like becoming a professional singer after having started as a street performer, with all the resources that come along. So I do think, of course, that the rehearsal time, the equipment and the production value were completely different between the two films, but at the same time the goal is the same—to accomplish the ideal outcome for that particular script, using the resources at my disposal. I can work either way, and they are both just as fulfilling.