Cities of Last Things opens interestingly enough. While a cheerful doo-wop song plays, the camera pans back on a tall building. Things seem pretty happy until a man plummets from the top of the building, landing right above the camera. As a drone hovers over the body, loudspeakers announce to the gathering onlookers that suicide is not a good option. Security guard Zhang Dong-ling (Jack Kao) isn’t the least bit interested in the suicide, and he brushes right past the chaos on the way to confronting his wife (Liu Jeui-chi), whose sensual dancing and possible infidelity have him enraged. We then see him researching a health minister while he sits on an autonomous-drive bus, buying a pistol before he visits a prostitute and paying with his fingerprint. We’re obviously in the not-too-distant future, but it’s unclear why Dong-ling won’t divorce his wife and why he is so full of anger and sadness. But don’t worry, we’ll find out.
Winner of the Platform Prize at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Cities of Last Things is writer/director Wi Ding Ho’s fifth feature. After the somewhat sci-fi opening chapter, we go back 30 years to present day when a much younger Dong-ling, now a cop and played by Hong-Chi Lee, becomes involved with a French woman (Louise Grinberg) he has been busted for shoplifting, while also getting caught up in a police corruption scandal. And finally, we meet a 17-year old Dong-ling (Chang-Ying Hsieh) in his first encounter with the police, this time on the other side of the badge. While in custody he is handcuffed next to Big Sister Wang (Ning Ding), who is high up in a local crime family. The revelations Dong-ling gets from her will have a huge effect on his life.
The use of reverse chronology is interesting but has certainly been done before. What makes Cities more intriguing is how Ding Ho mixes genres, moving from dystopian sci-fi to film noir to melodrama. Showing just three nights in the main character’s life, all involving women who have a profound influence on his story, we eventually get to the root of his depression. As a character study, it’s an alluring exercise, though it veers toward oversimplification. The acting is good, not great (except for Ning Ding, who shines as Big Sister Wang), but the real star of the film is the cinematography by Jean-Louis Vialard. The beautiful visuals are worth 107 minutes of your time.