Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Bi Gan, 2018)

Long Day's Journey into Night poster“It’s living in the past that’s scary” an old friend advises the hero of Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (地球最后的夜晚, Dìqiú Zhòu de Yèwǎn). He knows she’s right, but like the best film noir heroes, the past is the place he can’t bear to visit or to leave. Stealing a title from a Eugene O’Neill play about a dysfunctional family individually lost in the fog of self-delusion and unable to escape the legacies of past trauma, Long Day’s Journey into Night is the story of a man looking for lost love but finding it only within the confines of his own memory, transient yet also eternal.

Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to his hometown of Kaili on the death of his father. As becomes apparent, there is nothing much of interest for him in a home he has avoided for years though an unexpected inheritance – a stopped clock his father could not stop looking at in the days before his death, yields unexpected treasure in the form of a black and white photograph of a young woman whose face has been burned out by a cigarette. Meanwhile, Luo walks us back through his own sad life story beginning at the turn of the Millennium when a recent divorce led to him letting down a friend, Wildcat (Lee Hong-Chi) – a roguish gambler, who was later murdered by gangster Zuo (Chen Yongzhong). Chasing the man who killed his friend, Luo tracks down his lover who bears a striking resemblance to the woman in the photograph. She tells him her name is “Wan Qiwen” (Tang Wei), and fascination soon turns into romance. As Luo has already hinted to us, Qiwen is the woman who defines his dreams – another of the disappeared, a ghost of memory which won’t let him rest.

Like the hero of Kaili Blues, Luo spends the rest of the picture looking for the missing – the mother who abandoned him in childhood, the man who killed Wildcat, and of course Qiwen. A haunted man, Luo chases ghosts and spectres of memory, attempting to repair his damaged world but perhaps half hoping not to find what it is he’s looking for and risk losing the beauty of its absence. Qiwen spins him a tale a worthy of any film noir femme fatale – of a jealous boyfriend and an impossible future. We can only be together if we live in the stars, she tells him, contributing to a noirish sense of futility which seals Luo inside a looping bubble of perpetual heartbreak and unresolvable longing.

For Luo all women and none are Qiwen whose emerald clad image echoes in every female face he sees. Memories of Qiwen and of his mother mingle uncomfortably, overlap and become one as he looks for explanations behind his twin abandonments and the heavy wound he carries in his heart. In his opening voice over, Luo tells us that dreams rise up within him and he rises with them as if his body were made of hydrogen, but that his memories are made of stone – heavy, immutable, and impossible to escape. Yet the dreamland is precious to him, because it’s the only place he can see Qiwen and where she is all he sees. Luo’s answers, if they come at all come only in dreams where the jumbled elements of his ongoing investigation reorder themselves, come together, and present a new truth holding its own transitory revelations.

In a dream Luo meets another woman who looks just like Qiwen only this time called Kaizhen with whom he trades eternity for transience and to whom he eventually gifts both. Luo’s wandering dream takes place on the winter solstice – literally the longest night on Earth, but is still too short. Drenched in perpetual rainfall, this Kaili is a lonely place of darkness and neon – a perfect encapsulation of Luo’s interior world, shaped by film noir and tragic romance which nevertheless gives way to a 3D dreamscape free of the selective editing which makes memory an unreliable narrator. Luo says that the difference between film and memory is that films are all false while memory holds both truth and lies, but in dreams dualities coalesce and absolutes disappear in a union of truth and fiction, transience and eternity. Bi Gan builds on the aching poetry of Kaili Blues for beautifully composed exploration of memory and desire mediated through frozen time and a single endless night.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Short clip (no subtitles)

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to complete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Jia Zhangke, 2015)

mountains may depart poster verticleJia Zhangke has made something of a career out of charting his nation’s history through the lives of ordinary people caught up in the business of living when everything about them is changing. Mountains May Depart (山河故人, Shānhé gùrén) isn’t the first of his films to span a comparatively wide period of time, though it is the first to venture into the “future” if only by a decade or so. Through a story of dislocation and isolation both cultural and personal, Jia has traversed the melancholy odyssey of those who grow up to discover that all the wrong choices have already been made.

The film begins at Chinese New Year 1999 – the dawning of a new age. Tao line dances and conga lines to The Pet Shop Boys’ Go West before joining in the celebrations by singing a song in the town square. She’s good friends with Liangzi whose company she seems to enjoy and they seem to get on together very well but it’s unclear if there’s anything more to it than that. Obnoxious rich boy Jiangsheng is also VERY interested in Tao and resents her friendship with Liangzi. Eventually things come to a head and Tao has to choose, and she does but in trying not to hurt anyone she ends up hurting everyone. On Tao’s eventual marriage to Jiangsheng, Liangzi, heartbroken, leaves town intending never to return. The segment ends with the birth of Tao and Jiansheng’s son, Dollar.

In 2014, Tao is divorced and Jiangsheng has taken her son to live with him in Shanghai where he’s a high stakes capitalist mogul. Liangzi, meanwhile, has married and had a child but has ended up working in a coal mine and has now become gravely ill. Unable to work he returns home and considers asking friends and family to help him through these difficult times. Sometime later a family tragedy occurs – the one silver lining being that Tao gets to see Dollar again but he barely remembers her and makes constant phone calls to his “mommy” in Shanghai.

In 2025, Dollar and Jingsheng have moved to Australia. Dollar is taking classes in Chinese which he barely remembers while Jingsheng has become a dishevelled and angry old man. Dollar has almost no memory of his real mother or his childhood in China and starts up an oedipal relationship with a lonely, middle-aged Chinese woman.

Jia paints the passing of time through a series of expanding screen ratios – beginning with 4:3 in 1999, to 16:9 in 2014 and finally 2.35:1 in 2025. The world literally gets bigger, wider, and our focus shifts from Tao to a more expansive canvas of displaced Chinese citizens finally reaching far across the seas. The first segment is more like Jia’s earlier films as Tao is caught between two lovers with possibly tragic consequences whereas the second part has more in common with his more recent work but part three takes things in an entirely new direction.

The 2025 segment doesn’t even feature Tao until the very end and focuses on her son – the ironically named “Dollar”. Having lived the last ten years in Australia he barely speaks Mandarin and has become an angry young man determined to drop out of college because “nothing really interests” him. Jinsheng never learned English and the pair can’t communicate. Gone is Jinsheng’s swagger – now he has a paunch, dishevelled hair and an unruly mustache. In 1999 he dressed in the self consciously stylish clothes of someone who has money and really wants you know it, but now his clothes are worn out and typical of any old man you might find sitting reading a paper on the side of a road. Dollar is lost. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with his Chinese teacher that’s founded on the shared loneliness of two people who’ve been separated from their homelands and loved ones. Looking for his mother in all the wrong places, Dollar’s eventual romance is likely to end in tears but luckily his Chinese teacher is a wise and kind woman who is able to offer some of her wisdom and a steady hand of guidance.

Though much has been made of the “futurism” of the 2025 segment, it’s in no way a science fiction experiment. The chief difference, as might be expected, is in technology though even this is subtle – see through tablets, electronic displays rather than blackboards (only a little more advanced than many institutions already use) and a much more intuitive embedding of google translate. More distracting are the strange anachronisms – vinyl records being played on a classroom turntable, visiting a travel agent to book a flight (does anyone even do this now?) and a preference for older cars. Most damaging though is that, as it’s set in Australia, the bulk of the dialogue is in English which somehow never sounds convincing despite the quality performances on offer.

Dollar wants his freedom from his overbearing, failure of a father though freedom itself is also a burden. The son flails aimlessly while the literal motherland, Tao, is alone, abandoned and forgotten. There’s something quite heartbreaking in the way Jia sculpts his overarching story. We begin with so much hope as Tao and her friends dance enthusiastically to the rather ironic choice of Go West in 1999 as her life is just beginning. When she dances to it again, alone, with the snow falling all around her it’s as if she’s crawled inside a memory, reliving a happy day rather than exulting in the now.

Mountains May Depart is a rich and complex film that is heavy with symbolism and metaphor. Jia wants to ask us where we’re going, and where we’ve been – China’s modernisation has occurred at such a breakneck speed that it’s left an entire nation bewildered. Facing a choice between “going west” and “taking care” of Chinese values (Sally Yeh’s 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care forms the opposing musical motif of the film) many, like Tao, have found themselves choosing poorly and paying a heavy price. What’s in store? A lonely, but wealthy, future devoid of all human connection where “sons” forget their “mothers”? The title suggests old friends like mountains and rivers never part but once the erosion sets in mountains crumble and rivers run dry – you have to look around you and remember what it is that’s really worth living for.


This is getting a full UK release from New Wave Films in Spring 2016!

For the curious here is Sally Yeh’s (葉蒨文) 1990 Cantopop hit Take Care (珍重) which does its best to tug at the heartstrings throughout the later part of the film (and largely succeeds).

First published by UK Anime Network.