Sex, Violence, and Trauma Inhabit The Brutal CITIES OF LAST THINGS 幸福城市
A dystopian tale unfolding in reverse chronology, Cities Of Last Things follows three extraordinary nights in the life of a man with a complicated past, taking revenge on the individuals who wronged him decades ago.
Director: Ho Wi Ding
Cast: Jack Kao, Lee Hong Chi, Louise Grinberg, Ding Ning
Runtime: 107 minutes
You see, the cruel irony of Cities Of Last Things—despite its Chinese title 幸福城市 directly translating to ‘City Of Happiness’—is that there’s nothing remotely happy that ever happens in this film. It’s bleak, so remarkably bleak. With that, Director Ho Wi Ding injects a generous, almost self-indulgent, dose of gratituous sex and violence. And it’s polarising, so remarkably polarising.
Within the first minute of the film, we witness the startling image of a man hurling himself from a building, falling flat on the camera. It’s immediately made jarringly clear—you’re either in it for the ride, or you’re not.
From then on, through a triptych of three segments, we follow our incredibly flawed main protagonist Zhang Dong Ling, as we piece together the life-changing events that would lead to his untimely suicide. Told in reverse chronology, the inescapable dismal events transpiring over three distinct nights take us all the way back to his early life for some much-needed insight.
And that’s where the film starts losing me bit by bit. Though the non-linear structure serves as a great premise (and a great marketing hook), the disconnect between the viewer and Dong Ling makes him a difficult character to relate to, much less empathise. The first segment sees him unflinchingly exacting his revenge, painting a portrait of a depressed man with decades of pent-up fury. We don’t initially understand how or why he’s driven to this point; his pain so deeply ingrained in his murderous spree. And eventually the air of mystery becomes weighted, for both the character and the viewer, rendering it exhausting to be emotionally invested.
Melding together instantly recognisable genres in the various vignettes of Dong Ling’s life, Ho delves into the repercussions of various forms of trauma, though not always successfully. In an interview, he explains: “I don’t think much about genres when I make film. It’s whatever the story needs. I never set out to do a mix of genres.”
That really shows—the tail end of Dong Ling’s life takes place in a dystopian sci-fi world, complete with microchips and futuristic technology. This segment in particular is pervaded with a myriad of satirical jabs about our near-future; many genuinely intriguing questions are posed but many of them are left unanswered as the plot progresses. His calculated fury quickly loses its vigor.
The story quickly jumps to present-day, as Dong Ling, in his late 20s, works as an upright cop in a police force riddled with corruption. He meets a French kleptomaniac, and thus a familiar whirlwind love affair ensues—recalling hues of neo-noir films, and the visual flares and melancholic yet passionate mood of Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels. It feels disjointed from the first act, taking on a puzzling tone with an even more puzzling performance from its token French actress.
Finally, as we reach the last and final vignette of Dong Ling’s life, we are surprisingly rewarded with the best segment of the entire film. It feels completely different and far removed from the first two in terms of quality, emotional intensity, and enrapturing narrative. Dong Ling is a rebellious and angry teenager spending a long and transformative night in jail, and can’t escape a viciously honest conversation with an older woman. It’s this drawn-out, straightforward segment that the scope of the film eventually stretches outwards, to the only woman who is given equal or even more depth and complexity than our main character himself.
And the grasp of the scenario is then given so much more weight. Actress Ning Ding knocks it out of the park here, easily giving the best performance of the film. With the spectrum of intense emotions she embodies during that conversation, every instance of regret and anguish is heartbreakingly palpable through the screen. Ho takes a break from the fast paced violence and sex in the first two-thirds of the film, allowing the camera to sit in sympathy with our characters.
Cities Of Last Things is, and I can’t stress this enough, a polarising watch. The individual segments and overarching ideas all seem comparable to revenge thrillers and other thematically similar non-linear films, a la Peppermint Candy and Memento, but its execution is sometimes bewildering.
If you enjoy the visual feast of style over substance, the genuinely alluring gritty cinematography (shot on expired 35mm film) is worth a watch. But it could have been more; Cities Of Last Things had the potential to be a brutal and affecting examination of how trauma affects a man’s life.
It all boils down to how the selling-point of the film works against its favour. The viewer, myself included, is denied of any semblance of catharsis. And maybe that’s your jam—but Dong Ling’s depressive fate had been sealed from the very beginning, and yet I chose to continue watching it.
And maybe that’s the true cruel irony of Cities Of Last Things.