Director Bi Gan talks leveling up at Cannes, his new masterpiece and 3D movies

Chinese film director Bi Gan waving with his right hand to audience

Bi Gan’s first feature film, Kaili Blues, was made for just over $30,000, in the Chinese filmmaker’s hometown. The crew was mostly made up of volunteers, and Bi assembled relatives and friends for the cast. It speaks to just how incredible that debut is that his sophomore feature, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (no relation to the classic Eugene O’Neill play), which screened at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, is an international co-production, boasts a cast including superstars Tang Wei and Sylvia Chang and is crewed by veterans who’ve also worked with beloved auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien.

The new film — which played as part of the international film fest’s Un Certain Regard section, meant to showcase innovative works — has been heralded as a “game-changer,” and reviews from of the festival have been (justifiably) rapturous.

Despite all that, Bi confesses that he doesn’t think of himself as a “professional director.” It’s not modesty so much as it is an earnestness — at 28, he considers himself too young for that designation. It’s an earnestness that feels in keeping with his style as a director. Both Kaili Blues and Long Day’s Journey Into Night plunge the viewer into a dream, with time stretching and compressing as the characters wander through Kaili. It’s an effect that the director achieves through pushing the boundaries of what’s expected in cinema, particularly in arthouse film; both movies feature astonishingly long takes (Kaili Blues’ is 40 minutes, while Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s is almost an hour), and the latest dives into 3D.

Dangmai Films/IMDb

A card at the beginning of Long Day’s Journey Into Night stresses that it isn’t a 3D film. Rather, when the film’s hero (Huang Jue) slips into a movie theater to watch a 3D movie, the audience is invited to don their 3D glasses along with him. It’s a playfulness that befits Bi, who seems willing to take technical risks in his storytelling because he hasn’t had any formal training: Prior to making Kaili Blues, he almost became a demolition worker.

As evidenced by our conversation — which touched upon Andrei Tarkovsky’s languorous science fiction film Stalker as well as the appeal of Spongebob Squarepants — his decision not to attend film school, thereby avoiding an “official” film education, has also lent him an open-mindedness that’s reflected in the way his films seek to evoke feeling, instead of just referencing other works. “There’s no distinction between highbrow and lowbrow in my eyes,” he said, “as long as I’m entertained and it’s able to inspire me in a way.”

Following the film’s premiere at Cannes, Bi sat down with Mic to discuss (through an interpreter) his creative process, the decision to use 3D and how he finds inspiration. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mic: You’ve spoken about your multidisciplinary influences, like Tarkovsky’s Stalker and a lot of poetry for Kaili Blues. What were your influences for this film?

Bi Gan: I can always go back to Tarkovsky. That’s always going to be an influence on me. Even for this movie, there’s an element of that.

Has your consumption of movies changed at all since Kaili Blues? I know you used to stream movies on the internet or get bootleg DVDs.

BG: I still see them in exactly the same way. I may have a lot of bootleg DVDs. Is it illegal here? I stream a lot of movies — how’s that?

Is there any one that you’ve seen recently that really impacted you?

BG: Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. These are also films that influenced me while I was writing the script [for Long Day’s Journey Into Night].

I want to talk about the script for this film. While I was watching the film, I felt like it was a refinement of a lot of the themes and ideas you were working with in Kaili Blues, and I understand that you were working on the two scripts concurrently. I was wondering if you could speak about the process of creating this film.

BG: I chose a genre, which in this case was noir, and I wrote a script. Then, I disrupted it and broke it down, and as I was shooting the film, I broke it down even more. I was always trying to simplify and disrupt my creative process, and even in editing, I saw disruption as looking at the footage and trying to break it down to even less formatted, script-like ways. And that’s the version you end up seeing.

In Kaili Blues, I broke the timeline down into three parts, and it wasn’t until the middle section, which is a full 40 minutes, that I felt [it should be] one shot. For this film, I wanted to break it into two parts, and the first part would be more fragmented, because memory is not a full idea — it’s these broken-down little moments. That’s what I wanted to portray in the first section. In the second section, which is a long take, I wanted to express time differently, and to really denote, as we move through life, that this is in real-time for the character. And that’s why I wanted to do it in 3D.

I was so taken by how the first and second halves of how this movie connect, because he’s speaking about dreaming, and then he goes into a dream, and the whole movie feels so dream-like. How do you create that feeling? Do you just innately know when you’ve got it?

BG: Just the fact that the second half is almost shot in real-time gives a dreamlike quality to it, and the people who show up are probably not people who should show up, so already that sets it up as a dream. And adding the element of 3D, this kind of spatial walkthrough of sorts, is how I wanted to express that section as something dreamlike.

Dangmai Films/IMDb

Given the use of 3D, as well as some of the characters discussing and going to see films, the movie also kind of works as a commentary on the state of cinema. I was wondering if you meant it as a broader commentary, or if it was just speaking to your love of movies.

BG: In terms of representing 3D cinema, to me, that’s not my agenda. I wanted to find a way to express the dream state, and I tried different ways to shoot this film, and the best way I can describe it is, when you close your eyes and come up with a memory, you see it in three dimensions. When you open your eyes, it’s just another thing, but your memory somehow allows everything to be extremely three-dimensional, and that’s what I wanted to express when I shot that memory sequence. In terms of whether or not I’ll want to shoot something like that again, probably not.

It does seem like, in order to represent what you want to get across, you’re very open to experimenting with different kinds of ways of shooting, especially with the 3D and the long takes. Is there anything you want to do in that vein that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to?

BG: I actually do want to try a bunch of different types of things. But even before I announced that this film was going to be in 3D, I did a one-year test to see if it was even possible, and it wasn’t until I felt that it was right that I announced that this was going to be partially 3D. So, yes, I want to try new things, but I don’t know what those things are right now.

Are there any 3D movies you’ve seen that you feel used it well?

BG: Gravity. It was the [computer graphics] plus 3D, which was why I was really impressed by it. It inspired me a lot. There were a lot of things I learned from watching the film, and the behind-the-scenes. Otherwise, I don’t really watch a lot of 3D films.

This film is on a very different scale from your previous film, both in terms of budget and in having professional actors. How was it making that jump, and was there anything you found easier or more difficult with this film?

BG: Because I don’t consider myself a professional director, there’s no difference in the way I direct professional and nonprofessional actors. The only difference is that, with a nonprofessional actor, I might have to explain more to get their performance.

For example, in this film, Sylvia Chang is a very seasoned actress, so when it came to her scenes, she understood it immediately, and was able to develop in a way that was probably easier than it would be when working with somebody who’s not a professional. But with somebody who’s not professional, I might get an unexpected result in the process, which is very exciting for me. So there’s no real easier way, but I’m very lucky, because all of my actors want to give me their best performance, so the end result is that they support my vision and they want to be part of it.

Including Sylvia Chang, you have a lot of very high-profile actors in this movie. Did they come to you looking to work with you, or was it a case of you being familiar with their work and reaching out to them?

BG: In the case of Sylvia, I worked on a short film for the Golden Horse [Film Festival], and she was the head of the jury at the time, so I went out of my way to ask her to be part of this film. For the scene that she’s in, I needed a woman who’s got very motherly, expressive emotional abilities, and that’s why I wanted to work with her. In the case of the other actors, it was all me reaching out and trying to get them to be in this movie.

Oh, wow. And they all agreed?

BG: It was very easy for me to get them, yeah. A lot of people who would come on set to watch me work would end up in the film, too. They liked to collaborate.

To backtrack a bit, I’m so surprised by the fact that you don’t consider yourself a professional director. Is there a particular reason that you don’t feel that way, or that there’s a certain point you have to reach to think of yourself in that way?

BG: Because I’m in Kaili, and most of my peers are in their twenties; to me, a professional director is somebody in their thirties. I’m just not quite at the right age to consider myself that. Also, everyone around me are nonprofessionals, or struggling to make films, and I consider myself a part of that community, so I don’t see myself as a professional, or an auteur.

I have one last question: In another interview about Kaili Blues, you compared the story to Kung Fu Panda 3, which I couldn’t stop thinking about because, one, I love that movie, and, two, I feel like it’s the kind of reference that not a lot of directors would make. To that end, I was wondering what you make of the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” cinema.

BG: I’ve been watching cartoons with my son. There’s no distinction between highbrow and lowbrow in my eyes, as long as I’m entertained and it’s able to inspire me in a way. I’ve been watching Spongebob Squarepants. To me, it’s just as artistic as anything else, and I’ll learn from that, too.