In the near future, Lao Zhang (Jack Kao) stalks and murders three people, including an elderly, hospitalised man and his ex-wife, before killing himself. The question at the heart of Ho Di Wing’s Cities of Last Things is what could have driven him to commit these crimes.
Told in three chronologically reversed stages, we gradually learn of the motivations driving Zhang. The meat of the story belongs to the middle section, in which we learn that as a young man Zhang was a police officer. Coming home one day to find his wife in bed with another man, he pulls his gun, only to have it taken from him and beaten into the bargain. On his return to the station, he finds his locker stuffed with money – meaning that not only was the man connected, but that he is routinely paying off the police.
Zhang’s first mistake is to publicly reject the bribe, going on a bender and hooking up with an attractive French girl he busted early for shoplifting. The inevitable consequences of Zhang’s emotional principled stand proceed from there, and by the film’s halfway point what had seemed like the film’s central mystery is pretty much resolved. What is left is both a study of the fundamental psychology driving Zhang, and how the anonymous city he has inhabited his whole life has shaped him.
The city as a psychological space is essential to the film; as Zhang changes and hardens, so to does his city. The future-set act is the most visually striking for its neon, science-fiction infused lighting – Blade Runner is a perennial touchstone for the noirish cyberpunk city of the future, but the comparison is not made lately. Ridley Scott’s film prophetically depicted an American city saturated with the signifiers of Chinese culture and language. Cities of Last Things gives us a Chinese city taking its cue from Western science fiction iconography. Even Zhang’s lost love – the shoplifting girl from his past – is European.
The final section, with Zhang as a delinquent youth, gives us the final key to his character. The reveal is fairly predictable and hardly original, staged as he is chained up at the police station he will eventually work from. Nevertheless, it is both satisfying and moving, and convinces as a complete, if not fulsome psychological portrait. As cop thrillers, melodramas and sci-fi yarns go, it’s easy to find examples that outclass Cities of Last Things. Yet in drawing on a melange of influences, Ho’s film succeeds in using fractured time as way of puzzling together the essential drives that move a city and its inhabitants.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell