With just two feature films the young Chinese director Bi Gan has established himself as one of the true new masters of world cinema, melding a preternaturally assured knack for technical direction with a legitimate sense of evoking dreams and memories. While staying firmly rooted in his home province of Guizhou, his films slip in and out of reality, despite and in many instances because of their wondrous tactility. Both a cinephile and a poet, he exists at the crossroads of many influences, yet his films have a daring and alluring elusiveness all their own.
On the occasion of the release of his new film Long Day’s Journey Into Night–which boasts an already acclaimed 59-minute long take in 3-D–we spoke with Bi on engagement with the audience, working with genres, consistently generating innovation in the smallest and most vital of ways, and more.
Special thanks to Vincent Chang for his live translation.
The Film Stage: The best place might be to start with the actual titles. As with Kaili Blues, there is a difference between the Chinese and English titles, so I was wondering if you could talk about the differences between the two, and if you’re heavily involved in picking the English title.
Bi Gan: It’s very common for a lot of films to have the English title be very different from the Chinese title. For me, it is also very fitting for this particular film, since it is designed and structured in this two-part structure. I thought it would be very interesting to have, for example, the first part (the 2-D part) as the Last Night on Earth [the film’s original Chinese title], and the second part (the 3-D part) as the Long Day’s Journey Into Night. That’s sort of a little game I play with the audience, and hopefully they will find it witty and funny, and also it’s a good way to actually have that kind of interaction with the audience, even before they watch the film just by understanding that there are two different meanings for the title.
Speaking of the two-part structure, this is definitely in some ways a mirroring or an extension of the structure and device that you employed for Kaili Blues. Did you have this idea after you made your previous feature, or was this something that you had in mind before, and how conscious were you of the previous film while you were conceiving and making this?
In terms of Kaili Blues, actually I was going for this three-part structure: before the long take, the middle part, and after the long take. Whereas for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I conceived of this particular structure of two parts, and then I wanted these two parts to have very different styles, in terms of the first part as the noir genre and the second part as a fairy tale. Even though stylistically speaking they are very different, I wanted these two parts to have these very close connections in terms of the narrative and how the narrative develops. Even though it is told in [two completely] different styles, and also two completely different formats, from 2-D to 3-D, there will be that interwoven, interconnected plotlines from the first to the second. I think the way that I made Long Day’s Journey Into Night has very little to do, if anything, with the way I made Kaili Blues, but I do think that because these two films are from the same filmmaker, there are certain characteristics or styles or ways of speaking or visual expression that you tend to see some kind of commonalities or common threads throughout.
There is definitely this very different shift in genre; the second half might be closer to your previous feature and your short films (The Poet and Singer and Secret Goldfish), whereas the first half is very much in the noir template—of course there’s elements of this in The Poet and Singer—but this is definitely even more closely tied to noir’s capacity for memory. Could you speak about how you decided to tackle the noir genre in this manner?
The way that I conceived the first part in the noir genre is because I have seen a lot of noir films in the past, and usually when they introduce the femmes fatales, these female characters tend to be very flat in terms of them not being three-dimensional, that in a way lack human complexities. In a way, they are really awful people with a lot of ill intentions that deserve to die, without any redeeming qualities at all.
So I thought, “what if I can create a femme fatale in this style or genre of noir that is somehow lovable, that the audience can actually empathize with?” That’s the reason why I created this first part in the neo-noir style, as the pretext for me to somehow tease out, is it possible that this character can be lovable, what led her to become this femme fatale in the first part of the film, whether or not there is a certain lovable quality to her, and I intentionally created that in the dream sequence, the 3-D sequence, the fairy tale sequence, to tell the story of what led her to become who she is now, in the first part.
Speaking of this fairy tale quality, would you say that your films are not only about the journeys and quests that the main characters undertake, but also about the bridging of multiple realms, multiple genres, or multiple levels of reality, for lack of a better term?
I think it has something to do with my working methods, in terms of how I write my scripts, and I do think that I’m not that great at writing screenplays and I’m just starting as a filmmaker. So to me, this is almost something I’m accustomed to, it’s just the way I function and the way I work when I’m trying to put together a script. I usually start with a genre, and for Kaili Blues the starting point was to appropriate the genre of the road movie as the starting point of the story I want to tell.
For this particular film, of course I should mention that I started with this particular genre when I wrote this script by appropriating elements from the film noir genre. But to me, that particular style and genre is not the end or the goal. I’m not making a noir film; for me, this is just a starting point. What I do is then I deconstruct, I disrupt, and I subvert that type of film genre in order to lead to the actual stories that I want to tell, and that’s how it evolves into the second part. To me, it’s just a way of how I operate as a filmmaker. When I write scripts, I’m used to this way of starting with one particular genre and then somehow disrupting it, deconstructing it, and subverting it in order for me to get to what I really want to say.
Could you speak about the way you work with actors, not only the more well-known actors like Tang Wei or Sylvia Chang, but also some of the lesser-known actors, including and especially your uncle Chen Yongzhong, because he has such a different character from your previous film to this?
I do think that of course they’re very different in terms of how I work with them and collaborate with them. For the professional actors, they tend to know the script very well, we don’t need to talk much about the script, and they know how to develop the characters well. Whereas for the nonprofessional actors, I definitely need to somehow create certain scenarios, atmospheres, or feelings and emotions I want them to emulate, but I do think they have this particular natural quality about them that is very precious and also goes very well with the films that I am making.
But at the same time, there is this challenge of continuity: if this is going to be a very very long take, they don’t have the ability to maintain character for a long period of time and then have to somehow also deal with dialogue, movement, a lot of gestures and moving around, and then knowing the space they want to go to in terms of blocking. I do think that those are the challenges for a lot of the nonprofessional actors that I’m using, and that’s also the reason why for Long Day’s Journey Into Night for that second half, the long take of almost an hour, I need to rely heavily on professional actors, just because they can deal with that type of dialogue with choreography with movement with blocking, in such a way that they can help me complete the sequence in such a way that I can actually finish it, or I can actually bring it to life. So that’s the reason why I rely moreso, especially in the long take, on professional actors.
But I have to say that my uncle and also my half-brother (Luo Feiyang), who’s in this as the kid who plays ping-pong with the main character (Huang Jue), they actually are semi-professional, so to speak; even though they are not professionally trained actors, we have been working together for such a long time that there is this ease of collaboration with them just because they know how I operate as a filmmaker and they know what kind of films I am making, so working with them is actually quite easy.
Speaking of continuity, I think one of the most remarkable things about the film is the way in which, within this flow of images and very smooth movement of scenes, you are able to create these particular sensations and connections. Could you speak about how you create those, and if you have a particular approach to those scenes that are very well-integrated into the whole yet have a slightly different energy?
The way I imagine different scenes and how I’m going to connect them is always thinking about how I’m going to create a way to distort people’s anticipation of what it should be. For example, in the opening sequence, when I was writing it I was thinking about, “I want to create a story about two characters in passionate desire; in the midst of it or right after, this particular male character starts to think about another female character, so how am I going to create something like this?” If I use a conventional way of doing that, I can just interject a flashback of the other female character into the narrative, but I didn’t want to do that because it’s not experimental, it’s not new, it’s not fresh.
So what I wanted to do is to somehow distort the spatial orientation for the audience right from the beginning, and that is to introduce that particular third character without using the traditional, conventional flashback. The opening sequence starts with the hand of this female character, and then introduces the music, and then pans the camera to the ceiling, and then the next thing you see is the face of the male character. So I think that particular sequence, from the hand to the music to the ceiling to the face already distorts spatially how people expect how the orientation of the room is positioned. That is one way for me to actually introduce this third character without relying on the traditional flashback, and that’s how I conceptualize not only the different scenes, but also between scenes, how I’m going to connect them scene-by-scene.
I’m curious, was the apple-eating scene perhaps inspired by Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth?
It didn’t have anything to do with the Japanese film. It was all a result of the interactions I had with [Lee Hong-chi], who is really a genius and really natural in terms of how he evolved emotionally through facial expressions. We were trying to capture what this particular character would be like when he’s emoting, when he’s going through certain emotions, so we tried to find a way of doing that by playing around with different devices, such as the butterfly knife that he plays with or just by smoking, to see whether or not that would be a way to emote or to really express very intense but very internalized emotions. I thought of having him eat something; we thought maybe it wouldn’t go well if he ate a chicken leg, so we decided to try some fruit. We then introduced an apple for him to bite on and start eating; I didn’t say cut, he kept going, and after one or two bites he kept on eating and the tears started to well up, and you see how the emotions progress and evolve. I was so close to him at the time because we were in a very confined space, in the back of a pickup truck I believe, and it sort of just happened, it wasn’t planned, and I let the camera run, and you realize that that was where we going, and that I as the filmmaker am enjoying whatever direction he was taking as an actor. That kind of tacit understanding that this is going well, this is something I want as he finished the whole thing, was unplanned, but at the same time because of that interaction, trust, and tacit understanding between us, we captured it on film, and I thought that was very effective.
As a final question, do you have any new projects in the works that you’re willing to talk about?
I have been just playing video games and taking care of my kids, so nothing is actually in production right now. I am in the stage of writing the next script, and I don’t have something very complete yet; it’s just a couple of scenes that I have written down, so it is a work in progress.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night opens in New York and Seattle on April 12 and expands in the weeks to come.