Chinese art house film becomes box office hit … after cinema-goers mistake it for romcom

  • Critics called Chinese director Bi Gan’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night challenging and ambitious. Marketers pitched it as the perfect first-date film
  • Languorous feature took US$38 million on opening night, but viewers felt cheated and victims of cultural snobbery. The backlash was swift
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 12:15pm

When Bi Gan’s latest drama premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018, critics were quick to praise its challenging, languorous narrative about a man returning to his hometown in search of a former flame, as well as the ambitious, single-take, hour-long dream sequence, and a shorter section in 3D.

Early box office projections anticipated a modest increase on the takings for Gan’s previous film, Kaili Blues, about two depressed rural doctors. Yet A Long Day’s Journey Into Night took US$38 million in China on its opening night on December, 31, beating the likes of Venom.

This was thanks to an artful marketing campaign that timed screenings to end on the stroke of midnight, and encouraged audience members to lock lips in the final scene, mirroring the protagonists.

As Variety reports, a campaign suggested the film (which has no connection to the classic Eugene O’Neill play) was the perfect first-date film, with promotional messaging playing on the film’s Chinese title to ask potential viewers: “Do you know what kind of sweet talk you’ll use to invite someone to the last film of 2018, The Last Night On Earth?”

Some US$15 million of tickets were pre-sold, with many spots fully booked and cinemas hosting more screenings to cater for demand. State broadcasters joined social networking sites in stoking anticipation, asking: “How will you spend your last night of 2018? Watching Last Night On Earth or eating a big meal?”

But a backlash is spreading after many audience members said they felt short-changed by the film, and cheated into believing it was a much more mainstream movie. Some felt angered by what they suspected was cultural snobbery at play. One commentator wrote on Weibo: “Those who say that the film had artistic meanings that we’re just unable to understand, please go eat s***.”

Many reported mass walkouts during the film, as well as multiple audience members nodding off as Gan’s dense drama unfolded. The film currently has a rating of 2.8 out of 10 on Chinese movie website Maoyan, with typical comments including: “The worst movie in history! Tricksters, thieves! I’m indignant – it’s a total bomb, the worst trash of all trash!”

Word of mouth proved so negative that takings fell to US$1.5 million on the film’s second day of release. Gan, 29, defended the campaign for his second feature, explaining he hoped many audience members would feel their cinematic horizons had been expanded.

“My colleagues promoting it didn’t steal or rob – they just used their own abilities and knowledge to do their task,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

“I myself am from a fourth-, fifth-tier city. Are you saying that people there should only watch those kinds of [blockbuster] films? I’ve never believed that, although I don’t necessarily think that they’ll like my movie.”