A sense of finality defines the appropriately titled Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Xìngfú Chéngshì), even as it works itself backwards from the darkness towards the light. Still more ironic, the Chinese title hints at “Happiness City” (neatly subverting Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness”) but that, it seems, is somewhere its hero has never quite felt himself to be. Embittered by a series of abandonments, betrayals, and impossibilities, he grows resentful of the brave new world in which old age has marooned him.
Ho opens with a bouncy, retro track advising that one should never be too generous with love only for a body to suddenly rain down from above. As we later discover, the body belongs to 60-something former policeman Dong-ling (Jack Kao) who has grown disillusioned with his futuristic, digital world, stubbornly smoking cigarettes and growing old gracefully while surrounded by vapers and ads for rejuvenating drugs. For reasons we don’t yet understand, he ventures into the red light district to buy a gun, punches his wife’s dance partner, and visits a hard-nosed sex worker who reminds him of a woman he loved and lost thirty years previously.
Love, guns, death and revenge become persistent themes for the older Dong-ling whose only bright spot seems to be a grownup daughter preparing to move abroad with her foreign boyfriend. Thirty years previously Dong-ling (Lee Hong-chi) too dreamed of running overseas. Consumed with rage on discovering his wife’s infidelity, he imagines himself killing her, her lover, and himself but settles only for a petty revenge against a colleague which exposes the entrenched police corruption he had refused to participate in, alienating his fellow officers. Bonding with a French kleptomaniac (Louise Grinberg) on the run from some kind of unresolved conflict with her father, he sees a way out only to have the door cruelly closed on him just as it was so many years before when he was just a teenager picked up for trying to steal a scooter.
In true film noir style, all women are perhaps one woman. Abruptly shifting tone in venturing into the recent past, we are introduced to Big Sister Wang (Ding Ning) – an embittered, disappointed femme fatale running out of road, hemmed in by the choices she has already made. She may already know there’s no way out for her, little needing the policeman’s warning that after her arrest everyone in gangland will assume she talked when they let her go, but she refuses to give in, repeatedly insisting on cigarettes and asserting her dominance while the unsympathetic policemen get on with their grim business.
Cornered, Ara, the shoplifting free spirit, decides to interrogate her interrogator, calling back to the later version of herself in asking why it is that prostitution is illegal. The policeman has no answer for her, save that he does not make the rules only follow them. Dong-ling too wanted to be a force of order, perhaps taking Big Sister Wang’s impassioned pleas to be a good person and not end up like her a little too much to heart. He follows the rules too closely for the comfort of his colleagues but finds himself dangerously exposed by an inability to regulate his feelings, a victim of toxic masculinity humiliated by his wife’s betrayal but unable to stand up to the corrupt superior who so casually closes down the only escape route he has been able to find.
The older Dong-ling is horrified by his daughter’s revelation that she lasered away a birthmark. How else can you recognise someone you lost long ago in the great wide world other than by a mark placed on them when they were born? His daughter rolls her eyes and reminds him that these days everyone is chipped, but there may be something in his rationale that everyone is marked at birth. Dong-ling is surrounded by handcuffs, self-driving vehicles, and locked doors. His fate is sealed, as we know, because we saw him fall, yet like Big Sister Wang he fought back only his resistance was violent and vengeful, abhorrent in its enraged pettiness. His is a tale of fatalistic resentment and of an existence consumed by a sense of hopeless abandonment, coloured only by a longing for lost love. Ho’s decision to end the film with its happiest moment, bright sunshine in place of rain soaked night, is ironic in the extreme but returns us to the grim serenity of the opening as the cheerful retro strains re-echo and Dong-ling catapults himself into a life of misery in the cities of last things where all hope is futile and all love loss.
TIFF trailer (English subtitles)
Liu Wen-cheng – Don’t Be Too Generous About Love