Biweekly Binge: A life turned inside out
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Cities of Last Things, streaming on Netflix
In Wi Ding Ho's curiously titled Cities of Last Things, love is hard to come by for the principal character Zhang Dong-Ling. The title is not the only peculiar thing about Wi Ding Ho's film. Time travels in reverse in Cities of Last Things while we move forward, gathering information about Dong-Ling's life and psyche. The stylistic choice pays rich dividends for a character like Dong-Ling, at least for the Dong-Ling we encounter and the one we think we know. We meet the older man. In fact, we meet his death and then proceed to dial back at his life.
The present, if we assume that the first act is the present, is futuristic and hopeless. People travel in self-driven buses and have chips in their wrists. Hands are used not to hold one another but to record and exchange crucial identity information. The legal age seems to be fluid. Someone says it is 24. Warnings of China's current mass surveillance measures are hard to miss in this film's depiction of dystopia. In this bleak atmosphere, Dong-Ling is a bitter, lonely man who hates his wife and her lover while refusing to get a divorce. He has a problem with letting things go, is violent and dangerous.
Cities of Last Things is essentially about the making, deconstruction, and disintegration of a man over decades, informed by key, but brief events in his life. Dong-Ling is played by Jack Kao in the present, by Lee Hong-Chi in the early years of his marriage, and Hsieh Chang-Ying in his teenage. The near future in the film is dominated by blue and grey, the sound of devices chiming is louder than any human interaction. And human interaction is paid for. Sometimes it's not even human, it's a doll. Human touch becomes a form of currency. An absent mother recalls the contact with her son, an English-speaking prostitute's touch reminds Dong-Ling of an ephemeral romance. Two wrists come in contact for monetary transaction. Touch goes from a shared state of human connection to a kind of technology and is ultimately pointless — you just wave hands in the air to move objects like in Minority Report. And like in Minority Report, a drone is swiftly upon you at the crime scene.
The middle act that is devoid of any technological marvel is grainy on film, successful in giving out the noir vibe that Wi Ding Ho is going for. Human contact occurs the most in this part of the film — men and women make love, men and women hit each other, they play beer pong and strip poker. A bus driver is extra careful while parking. The present is dominated by little emotion — hateful or abandoned. But here they go the full gamut — happy, disappointed, angry, sad, or depressed.
Cities of Last Things is about many things including mental health and loneliness. Everyone in their own way is alone at different point in their lives. Dong-Ling has always been alone. His daughter, the only person with whom he has a steady, meaningful relationship is moving away to a different country with her partner. Ara (Louise Grinberg), a kleptomaniac, is aloof and cut off from her parents, and the film leaves her fate open-ended. There is an intriguing scene in the present where more than one prostitute resembles Ara, confounding us and Dong-Ling further. Wi Ding Ho hints at the present and forewarns of a future where technology is paramount, assumed to contain solutions to every challenge, unwilling to pay heed to the clear and present danger of ignoring sociological concerns. The first sequence occurs at a home for the elderly and in a scene, a minister is shown talking about improving care for senior citizens. It mentions that the event he was planning to attend towards that effort was cancelled, signalling the priority the people and, more importantly, the state place on it. An employee even approaches Dong-Ling asking if he needs help or if he needs to talk to someone.
Streaming on Netflix, Cities of Last Things is a bit of everything. It is part mood piece, stretches of the second and third acts unabashedly redrawing frames of Wong Kar-wai. Brightly lit offices contrast with dimly lit homes and nights of the city shine just right. The first act could be straight out of modern-day Hollywood dystopia, plucky in its gloom and isolation. Louise Grinberg's character could be Rachael's friend in Los Angeles from Blade Runner (which is incidentally set in 2019). Wi Ding Ho's film may not be readily arresting, not always adroit in its noble intention to blend genres across three timelines. It demands a little patience, initially stuttering along with its premise and then dazzling us with its style and strong emotional core.