Executing a film structure in reverse chronological order isn’t a new thing in cinema, but it mostly led to abuse for the film to seem smart rather than giving it a profound impact. Fortunately, Cities of Last Things doesn’t fall into those cheap categories, making well of its plot device to deliver the ambition of the story. Directed by Malaysian born-Taiwainese Ho Wi Ding, this atmospheric film explores the characters’ past, present and future with the setting of three nights and three seasons in the same city.
The film opens in a futuristic Taiwan during the winter season, where citizens are supervised using chips and drones. Shot using 35mm cinematography, it provided a rich grain texture in an already bleak tone as a man jumped from a building, leading to his death. Afterwards, we focus on an elderly man named Zhang Dong Ling, with no background story, and the only way to know who he is is through the progression of time. It may be a turn-off and confusing for many as there are almost no clear motivations for the character. But Jack Kao’s grounded performance helped to at least get the audience a sense of his traumatic past until the first story ends. Also, kudos for Ho Wi Ding’s direction with the visual effects that enriches the setting, which is a criticism of Chinese autocratic authorities through its “show, don’t tell” concept.
The 2nd story flashes back to a more realistic, noir story of Dong Ling’s young days as an officer. Through this story we finally understand who Dong Ling is and what he went through that motivated his actions in the future. While the reveal is strong, the impact is considerably weakened since we’ve seen the “resolution” through Dong Ling’s actions. Nevertheless, the audience finally gained sympathy for Dong Ling’s rage through what we’ve seen, or in chronological order, what Dong Ling will endure in his life. Unfortunately, the film felt muddled in the middle, glorifying its visuals that undoubtedly fit the genre while neglecting the shallow feel of adventure.
It jumps to the 3rd story, introducing new characters that of course will bring new confusions to the audience. It’s brilliant though, as the audience could definitely snap back into the film through the director’s genius in visual storytelling. The third story felt disconnected from the previous ones, with all the questions answered already. It still manages to spark curiosity and entertainment when we see the young Dong Ling interacting with the new character. And this interaction is what made Cities of Last Thing considerably categorized as a rare ambitious offering to the audience.
Cities of Last Thing could be viewed as unnecessarily convoluted through the use of ambiguous storytelling and plot structure. However, personally it is a complex film of a character’s inevitable fate that comes with an emotional bang in the end due to the knowledge of the film we had since the beginning. The director intended to show how much darkness a city offers that diminishes a person until he/she has nothing left. Maybe it is how Ho Wi Ding perceives the city of Taiwan or even life itself. Taking everything precious until there is no longer any value. Showing just how bleak life is.