An atmospheric bummer with a time-folding structure, “Cities of Last Things” paints an embittered cop’s downward spiral with the detached romanticism of classic noir. Not quite as stylish as a Wong Kar-wai mood treasure or as deterministically pointed as a “Black Mirror” episode, Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker Ho Wi Ding’s fifth feature is still mostly a captivating, brooding churner about fate, loss and private stain that makes the most of a reverse-chronology narrative that’s less wink-wink clever than cannily dramatic.
The doo-wop-scored suicide that opens the movie — a high-rise drop captured from ground level — suggests the kind of sardonically despairing view of existence we’re in for, while loudspeakers decrying the “negativity” of suicide reveal just how pervasive ending it all must be in this chilly near-future. Walking past this urban finality is off-duty security guard Zhang Dong-ling (Jack Kao), a man driven by obsessions that lead him on this wintry night to disrupt his estranged wife’s dancing class, buy the services of a prostitute who triggers a memory in him, then sneak into a hospital to violently confront a bedridden state official. Only a somber visit with his grown daughter, whose life seems to be in a good place, points to something reflective in Zhang that isn’t simultaneously marred by a dangerous impulse.
With little to explain Zhang’s motives, however, the first 40 minutes is essentially a nugget-sized dystopia about a doomed man, underscored by tech details — implanted chips, beauty-rejuvenating injectables, driverless buses, cloned sex workers — that paint an around-the-corner future in which someone haunted by old wrongs might feel especially trapped.
The film then makes a soft transition to an earlier time in Zhang’s life, and a momentous 24-hour period in which the then-newbie policeman (now played by Hong-Chi Lee) contends with the discovery of his wife’s infidelity, the machinations of a corrupt boss, and the promise of escape after he chases down and arrests a beautiful lawbreaker. It’s the movie’s best sequence, both deepening the emotional mysteries even as it clarifies the sources of Zhang’s later (earlier in the film for us) angst. A compact crime-drama gem of smeary, neon-textured lost innocence, it plays like an undiscovered story in a tattered pulp anthology.
Much of that has to do with Ho’s unforced energy as a director, and his confidence in leaning into the evocative graininess of Jean-Louis Vialard’s nighttime cinematography, which is both lushly seedy and claustrophobic. (It’s the subtlest of texture changes from the desolate crispness of the first segment, but it’s there, and it works.) That tone is also in the performances, as well, most notably French actress Louise Grinberg’s turn as a young shoplifter whose cynicism and brokenness briefly draws Zhang into an unshackled oasis of connection and romantic hope.
The movie’s next leap backward into Zhang’s past is also spotlit by a commanding turn, this time Ning Ding’s vinegary portrayal of a sought-after crime boss named Big Sister Wang, arrested at the same time as a scooter-hotwiring kid we quickly realize is the teenage Zhang. Quietly revelatory (even if it’s eminently guessable), this segment adds its own rough ingredients to the overall while avoiding the melodramatic notion that the puzzle of any person’s life can be solved by the events of long ago.
That was always the sly fake inside the notorious “Citizen Kane” ending, and Harold Pinter’s time-reversing march in the play/movie “Betrayal” — that to reach back as we try to make sense of the twists and turns of destiny is our most tempting gambit, but also maybe our grimmest, most confining dodge. “Cities of Last Things,” which adroitly makes the most of handcuffs as a visual metaphor, displays a keen, wry understanding of that gimmick, and it makes for a surprisingly effective slice of dystopian noir.
‘Cities of Last Things’
In Mandarin, English and French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Available July 11 on Netflix