Misery begets misery in Ho Wi Ding’s crime drama.
“You blew it.”
In the year 2049, a man falls to his death from the window of his apartment. This man is Zhang Dong Ling (Jack Kao), a former policeman and something of deadbeat. He’s married to a woman he doesn’t love and who is definitely sleeping with someone else, and doesn’t see his daughter as much as he should. He seems to not fit into this ever-lonely and harsh future world and spends a night with a prostitute who reminds him of someone he lost a long time ago. It’s a bleak existence, and so he does the only logical thing: he kills a bunch of people and then himself.
And that is the first act of Ho Wi Ding’s bizarre downer of a movie. The rest of the story follows Zhang’s life backwards through the years. We see him as a rookie cop living his own noir thriller, and even further back as a young delinquent. It’s very obvious what Ho were trying to achieve here: we’re looking at something that’s reminiscent of Perth, or Falling Down or maybe even this year’s Joker. What, the film asks, happened to this guy that he’d be the way he was in 2049?
It’s a fine – if potentially problematic – thesis. We’ve been seeing these movies at least since Scorsese release Taxi Driver back in 1976. The thing is that all of those films had a set story formula that they followed for a reason: if we see the main character do horrible things without reason, it’s not going to endear him or her to us. And that’s what Zhang is, at least for the first half hour of this film. It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by the setting: the future is an uncomfortable place, tucked away in the uncanny valley of our own reality. The world building is excellent, but this unfamiliar time forces the audience to find a character they can relate to, and Zhang isn’t it.
So the characters might be a bit shitty, and the story might not be a whole lot of fun, but what worked about it? Like I mentioned, the world building was a great touch and helped sell the weirdly high-concept opening (although I will attest that it’s almost entirely pointless to have set it then instead of the present day). Additionally, the cinematography works wonders in capturing the mood of the three main sections of the movie, offering a slightly different colour palette and shooting style as we jump from one time period to another – it’s a subtle change that makes a world of difference.
And then there’s the main cast, some of whom have to play the same character over different years. Props to the three actors to portrayed Zhang and also to Ho’s script for keeping him consistent enough in his portrayals while also showing us the ways he’s changing over time. He might be awful in the future, but the naïve-to-jaded depictions of him as a young man are nuanced and complex. The same goes for Ara, Zhang’s love interest in part 2 and Big Sister Wang, a gang leader with a peculiar connection to Zhang from part 3. The side roles are given a lot of focus – more so than you’d expect – and the result is a drama that might not be particularly good, but it’s certainly detailed.
So … yeah. The disparate pieces of this picture aren’t bad and it strikes me that some simple editing would do Cities of Last Things a world of good. As it was it wasn’t awful, but it’s frustrating to see that there’s a much better movie hidden within this one and it wouldn’t require too much digging to find. The first act might not seem so consequential, but when it gives you your lasting impression of the main character, it can put a massive downer on what’s already a pretty bleak picture that could use some of its own magical Rejuvenator.
Verdict: Cities of Last Things is frustratingly less than the sum of its parts.
Overall entertainment: 5/10
Likeable characters: Maybe one?
Cheerful moments: There’s bound to have been one, surely
White people dancing: Hoo boy
Smoking: So much. Was it meant to represent something?
Cities of Last Things (2018)
Also known as: 幸福城市 (Joyful cities)
Mandarin, French, English
Director: Ho Wi Ding
Writer: Ho Wi Ding
Jack Kao – Zhang