“Cities of Last Things” is one of the more exciting films to have been presented at Toronto this week. What follows a dramatic suicide in a bravura opening shot is a triptych that unwinds in reverse chronological order from 2049, through the present, to a not so distant past.
While the film’s perverse structure and the requirements that puts on the audience is part of the enjoyment – the discovery process is a why-dunnit, rather than a “Memento”-like whodunnit – so too is the East-West mashup that director Ho Wi Ding has achieved.
Malaysian-born Ho is Western-educated, but venerates the Taiwanese master of slow cinema Hou Hsiao-hsien, and lauds Tsai Ming-liang, the island’s king of poignant, experimental films. Like Tsai, Ho bases himself in Taiwan, where culture plays a prominent role in everyday society.
“I love Hollywood films. And even though I worship Hou Hsiao-hsien, I cannot do what (the Taiwanese veterans) do. For them it is another way of telling a story. But not everyone has to do it. I like to tell stories quicker, with more rhythm,” Ho says. “When you do long takes, all you have to do is pay attention to what is happening in the frame – acting, composition. But when you do shot lists, it is about editing. Telling a story through editing.”
According to Ho, Taiwan has other advantages too. They include government support for filmmaking and a freedom from commercial pressure, and its technical facilities.
Ho has resisted the move to digital cinema and still likes to shoot on 35mm film. “I’m not doing it because (digital converts) have suddenly proclaimed 35mm cool again. I find it very natural. My shorts and my past work (“Pinoy Sunday”) was done on 35mm and there are still labs and Fujifilm stock available.”
Ho rejected suggestions that he shoot the historical segment in black and white, or followed the example of Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” movie and used three different stock and format choices for the different segments.
“Those are predictable and too convenient choices. I didn’t want it to look like three films. Or an anthology by different directors. It is one film, about three nights in the life of one person.”
In two of the sections, characters have a conversation, but speak their own language (French and Mandarin), rather than a common one. Ho, who references Wong kar-wai’s “2046” and Bong Joon-hos’ “Snowpiercer” as forerunners, says this reflects his own well-travelled background, but is also making a point about technology and multiculturalism. “In the future section, we may have less problem with language. Everybody in China already has translation software,” Ho says. (The film also makes use of implanted tracker chips and ubiquitous surveillance in the future segment, but the director says the film is not specifically about China.)
For a while, “Cities” was neither moving forwards or backwards. Having raised money from his own company and from Taiwanese public sources, Ho went ahead and shot the past and present sections. But the cash was not enough to complete the film, and production stalled for a year.
“The good thing was that we started to edit the present and the past. And once we began to see the film taking shape, we knew exactly what we had to do with the future. We didn’t need to go crazy with flying cars or similar. It made us more grounded, and the film more consistent,” he says. It also provided a montage with which to persuade financiers.
Cash for completion came from “Crazy Rich Asians” producer Ivanhoe Pictures and Singaporean mini-conglomerate MM2. The final budget was some $1.6 million.
Ho says he likes to keep busy, and has now relocated to Beijing, where he shot movie for hire “Beautiful Accident” for Huayi Brothers. But Ho has not settled on his next film project. “I would love to be David Fincher working in the studio system, not using his own money, offered good scripts, but able to work the way he wants,” Ho says.