Bi Gan’s Cinema of the Film History

As the technologies of the future – Virtual Reality, New Media, etc. – threaten Cinema or add to the proclamation that it is dying, young visionaries like Bi Gan are reinventing the medium with an approach that is a perfect marriage of postmodernism and reverse-engineering. Today I want to stress upon the technical side of that phenomenon by way of my most favorite dissolve in all of Cinema, which practically isn’t a dissolve at all.

Luo Hongwu turns his ‘time’ backwards…

This post works better if you’re well familiar with the film Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as I tried to be that myself by watching it seven times just in theaters. You know how the film is actually a poetic reverie over Film Noir, how its construction is more loyal to the genre tropes or elusiveness of dream realism than to a tangible story. Except its visual modeling is not just limited to Noir, its illustration of themes of memory & identity is not just limited to that of an individual or a place.

A dissolve in a film, in most cases, is used to austerely indicate passage of time, as compared to a hard cut. It was also frequently used for initiating Flashbacks, especially during B&W era, when Noirs obviously thrived. Now, the dissolve I want to talk about comes up around 19th minute in the film, it leads to the second full flashback scene, and here the formal foreshadowing takes place unlike the first flashback which is indicated by turning a clock backwards (in the picture above). Observe the following sequence of images carefully.

As Luo Hongwu is pushing his truck through the tunnel, we’re tracking out until our vision is blurred by the rain – dissolution of the current shot – and in the same blurry state we track to our left to enter an identical tunnel. Slowly, the clarity of our vision is brought back – emergence of the next shot – with the same truck’s wiper blades, as we start tracking into the tunnel, following the woman in green dress. The voice-over clearly states the flashback here – a different day – as do the sunny exteriors outside the tunnel, at the end of that four minute shot.

So it is sort of a stitched, horizontal pan! Why didn’t he simply use the regular dissolve? Tracing that answer leads to multiple theories, as it does for almost everything in that film. One explanation could be with the stress over the ongoing season, which is an important element in Luo Hongwu’s conversation with Wan Qiwen (woman in green dress), as punctuated at the end of the scene. Within that dissolve, there’s still a sense of an uninterrupted shot, a sleight of hand with the time difference, being visually clearer only later. This is a fascinating way to portray how our minds ‘presently’ drift into memories and daydreams. The seamless transition demonstrates that implicit, unconscious dive quite astutely.

This kind of re-invention of formal techniques harks back to another memorable, final shot from Bi Gan’s feature debut – Kaili Blues – where he hints at the state of dreaming with clocks painted on a moving train, suggesting a reversal of time, as our protagonist sleeps in foreground, utilizing the principle of a Zoetrope, one of the technological precursors to motion picture. Or later in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, when a peculiar ping pong paddle provides the magical power of flying, by way of the flight of the Eagle carved on it, using the technique of a Thaumatrope.

Classic Bird in a Cage illusion, except its free!
Ominous shatterings – Stalker (left) vs Long Day’s Journey Into Night (right)

Finally, I think Bi Gan’s cinema is also very much about our collective, shared memory of previously made films. Some of its meaning is hidden in these formal elements, some of it is hidden in clear homages, like the glass sliding from the table (or the panning over algae in a lake) à la Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or the parallels with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. While, there have been post-modernist takes on Film Noir (Godard’s Breathless) or Thrillers (Antonioni’s Blow-Up) since the middle of last century, this century has seen filmmakers deliberately moving away from their narrative’s self-containment, expositions (Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.) or conclusion (Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake). Being a huge film-noir buff, I personally have been loving this wave of cinema’s future past.

P.S. I understand that embedding the video of the scenes I am talking about, would greatly improve the experience of this post. Till I figure out a way of doing so, without getting in a legal trouble, you can enjoy each of these films. They truly are stupendous works of art and among my favorites.

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