It’s one thing to have wild cinematic ambitions, and quite another to pursue them without a strong technical skill set and years of apprenticeship in the craft. But from the beginning of his career, the twenty-nine-year-old, mostly self-taught filmmaker Bi Gan has never shied away from going for broke. His two feature films may be set in the small, provincial world of his southern Chinese hometown, Kaili, but they are propelled by grand themes and a palpable fascination with the possibilities of film form. Floating elegantly between past, present, and future, the low-budget, Locarno-award-winning Kaili Blues (2015) takes hold of a cliché of international art-house cinema—the long take—and pushes it into strange, dreamlike new territory. Bi’s latest film, Long Day’s Journey into Night, combines that experimental approach with a considerably higher degree of risk, evident in its comparatively lavish budget, a cast of famous actors like Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang, and an intricately choreographed set piece shot in 3D.
While the director’s rebellious spirit has won him cinephile fans abroad, it has ignited no small amount of ire among mainstream audiences at home. When Long Day’s Journey hit theaters in China last year, it quickly became the highest grossing independent film in the country’s history, but it also left many viewers infuriated at the promotional campaign, which had sold Bi’s willfully confounding noir as a sexy romance. In anticipation of the stateside release of Long Day’s Journey, as well as the premiere of Kaili Blues and the equally intoxicating short film The Poet and Singer on the Criterion Channel, Bi spoke with me about the challenges of making such audacious, highly stylized cinema on a large scale. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
When you were growing up in Kaili, what opportunities did you have to see art films?
Not any, really. My strongest memories of going to the movies when I was young are centered on Stephen Chow’s films. There was one theater in my hometown, and there was also a small screening room that showed movies on VHS. Most of what was being screened theatrically was from Hong Kong, though I remember Titanic being one exception. I enjoyed Chow because of his childlike sense of humor. At that time, my parents were heading toward divorce, and there was a period of one or two years where there was a lot of emotional tension between them. They would take me to the movies almost as an attempt to solve their problems, though at the time I didn’t really know what was going on. It was like movies were their way of saying goodbye to each other.
Your movies have such a strong, confident sensibility. Were you always artistically inclined?
It wasn’t until high school, when I was preparing for college admissions, that I started getting interested in art in general. I was very lost and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and it’s during times like that when people usually start opening up to art. I ended up going to college in Taiyuan [in Shanxi province] because I wanted to get as far away from Kaili as possible. It wasn’t because I don’t like small-town life but because I simply felt I had stayed too long. I was majoring in writing for television, but I didn’t go to class much, so I started using that time to explore movies. The first ones I was really interested in were documentaries about animals—I loved this Japanese one called Quill, about a guide dog. So I was thinking I’d make movies like that, and then I started discovering Tarkovsky and other filmmakers who inspired me to go in another direction.
How did you arrive at the long take as an artistic challenge that you wanted to keep coming back to? It’s a sort of signature for you now, since you use it in such extreme and innovative ways in Kaili Blues and Long Day’s Journey into Night.
It started out because I was using nonprofessional actors—including my uncle, who I cast in Kaili Blues. I thought it was easier when you’re working with nonprofessionals to give them as much space as possible to play around and express themselves. But I was also inspired by what Hou Hsiao-hsien did with the long take, especially in Goodbye South, Goodbye. I just loved the texture of how he used it. It was Hou who gave me confidence to be a director. Most of the movies that I felt I had to watch were in foreign languages, and it was hard to find subtitles, so I’d end up just paying attention to mood and aesthetics and cinematography. When I saw Hou’s films, language was not a problem, and I also felt that there was a worldly wisdom in his work that mirrored my experience.
Your two features are similar in that they explore time and memory through a kind of dream logic. But they were made on two very different scales, in terms of both budget and technical daring. Long Day’s Journey feels special partly because it’s a rare Chinese art film that looks quite expensive, and I’m wondering if you felt that difference during the production.
Certainly on the technical side it was a big leap. I always think the biggest difference between poetry and film is that you need a lot of technical skill to pull off a movie. When I made my short The Poet and Singer, I had no sense of the technical aspects of filmmaking, and I only had a few hundred RMB. I had a very basic photo camera that could also take video, and I suddenly became interested in the technological side of things. So on the Internet I looked up a way to unlock it, and then I upgraded it so it would shoot at a higher resolution. By the time I made Kaili Blues I had realized that I could capture more of the details that I wanted with better technology, but because of the limited budget I wasn’t able to achieve everything. I spent a lot of time just trying to maintain my artistic sensibility throughout all the challenges. I knew technically I wasn’t capable of doing certain things, so sometimes I would be forced to sacrifice technical perfection in order to pursue what I was envisioning aesthetically.
By the time I was working on Long Day’s Journey I was hoping for a higher level of technique. You imagine that if you’ve done it a certain number of times, it will naturally just get better. But there were challenges that stemmed from the difference in scale. This was a different kind of production from anything I had done before, with a lot more restrictions, because all of a sudden I was working with a couple hundred people instead of just the small crew I’d used on the previous films. But the way I was thinking about filmmaking was the same as it had always been—my attitude on-set is very casual and flexible, and I want to be spontaneous. That created a lot of nuisances for the crew, a lot more than I had experienced before. You’re sitting there waiting for a scene to get set up, and it’s not just a few people waiting with you—it’s hundreds of crew members.
So would you say you prefer a smaller scale?
The bigger the scale, obviously the more complicated things become. And those complications can make the final work a little clumsy. So I do prefer my earlier work. With a short, you can make something polished and exquisite. But one thing that hasn’t changed is what I’m looking for in my films. When it comes to my approach, it all feels the same, as if no time has passed between these projects. Other people might punctuate time by buying a dog or some other activity like that, but for me, my memory is completely taken over by these movies. And when I look back at the difficulties of making the features, what I admire is my courage.
How did you feel about the backlash against Long Day’s Journey and the way it was marketed in China? Is there any lesson you drew from it with regard to the current state of art cinema there?
When a movie enters the marketplace, the audience is understanding it according to the channels through which it was made available, not necessarily according to what the film actually is. We promoted the film in a way that we thought would make it seem interesting, and when the campaign started going viral, it came as no surprise to me that there was some backlash. It was an interesting experience, and it made me think a lot of people don’t need art—for them, film is just a collective activity, just something to do. Art films have no status in China, but then again they don’t need status. Globally, there’s a stable network for them to exist in.
On the funding side, things have gotten better, though I’m not sure if that will continue indefinitely. When I was making Kaili Blues, it was hard to raise even 30,000 RMB. But now there’s a lot of money, and people are looking for ways to fund movies. Interestingly enough, some of these funders don’t really know that much about movies, but if my filmmaker friends want to raise a million RMB for a project, it’s not that hard to do.
As you mentioned earlier, film started out as a family affair for you. I’m curious what your family thinks about your movies, and if any of them have had the same sort of reaction that some of the general public had to Long Day’s Journey.
My parents’ generation usually just watches TV, because there was no movie theater in Kaili for a long time. So when I was making my short film, my family felt that what I had made was very different from what they saw on TV, because of how much information there was to process in each shot. When I was shooting Kaili Blues, they could see that I was doing something with a great deal of seriousness, but they felt that what I was doing had no value. Then, after they saw the final result and it was released, they started having quite a bit of respect for me, even if they didn’t exactly understand what I did. They would tell me that my movies made them a little dizzy. At the end of the day, they’re probably no different from the average moviegoer, but out of the kindness of their hearts they made the effort. And because they read my interviews, they probably understand what a long take is better than the average viewer.