The peppy exhortation to “live every moment as if it were your last” has always been a source of annoyance, not least because it’s so redundant: Every moment we experience is our last — as in, the latest in a long line of moments that terminates in the present with only the chirruping crickets of an unknown future ahead. With his fifth feature, Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker Ho Wi Ding (“Pinoy Sunday,” “Beautiful Accident”) has basically made a hymn to that observation, in the form of the seamy, secretive, sorrowful “Cities of Last Things” — winner of the Toronto film festival’s juried Platform section — a fatalistic film noir that uses a non-chronological structure to invoke the elusive idea that every encounter is an abandonment, every beginning an ending, every first a last, and that all we are is the sum total of all those last things.
And so it begins with an end. While an incongruously cheerful, old-fashioned Chinese doo-wop song plays, a figure plunges from a high-rise to a splattered death against the camera lens. It’s a gimmicky beginning, not really in step with the sleazy richness of Jean Louis Vialard’s camerawork elsewhere, which swaddles the images in the dirty grain of 35mm film, and lights them in slick pools of oily neon. But it gives us a way into Ho’s ouroborus narrative, and allows him to quickly establish the world of this segment, the first of three.
Here we’re in the near future, and there’s a team instantly at the site of the messy death offering counseling to passersby while a propaganda loudspeaker blares slogans like “Suicide is an act of degeneration!” and “We have to be positive all the time!” And so we understand this future is dystopian even before we glimpse its scuffed surveillance tech, thumbprint payment systems, and driverless buses: The only reason for a society to have such efficient anti-suicide mechanisms in place is if suicide is a common occurrence.
Glowering through its chilly streets at dusk (each of the three segments is not only set in a progressively earlier time period, but at a progressively later time of night, during a different season), ex-police officer Zhang Dong Ling (Jack Kao), collar up and woolly hat pulled low over tired eyes, is on a mission involving a minister of state who is currently hospitalized. On the way to this obscure assignation, Zhang first confronts his estranged wife, and then is waylaid by a pimp who shows him pictures of the girls he has on offer. Zhang is startled by the resemblance one of them bears to a young woman he used to know, but this is a time of instant rejuvenation serums, perhaps even cloning, so who’s to say that anyone is who they say they are, or the age they seem to be.
A few decades earlier, Zhang (now played by Lee Hong-chi who also appears in Bi Gan’s Cannes sensation “Long Day’s Journey into Night”) discovers his young wife’s infidelity at the same time as his refusal to be part of his department’s corruption starts to become a problem for his fellow cops. Amid all this drama, he meets Ara (French actress Louise Grinberg), whom he’d earlier arrested for stealing, and the two form a tenuous bond over the course of a sultry summer night. And earlier again, we meet Zhang (Xie Zhang-Yin) as a sullen teenager who is coincidentally arrested at the same time as gangster boss Big Sister Wang (an outstanding, riveting Ding Ning), to whom he turns out to be connected.
Triangulated between the swooningly stylized romance of Wong Kar-wai, the genre-edged realism of Jia Zhang-ke, and the humid dreaminess of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose “Tropical Malady” was also shot by Vialard), “Cities of Last Things” has a gorgeously textured look in which even the blackest shadows seem to buzz with life and menace, complemented by the low-lit murmurs of Robin “Rob” Coudert’s plaintive score. And the story does reward the effort it takes to unkink it, turning into an ever-decreasing circle of broken connections, in which all the women in Zhang’s life end up leaving, each time denting his battered soul a little more, but finally contributing to a moment with his adult daughter, which in retrospect becomes more meaningful and moving as the film progresses/regresses.
In outline it might seem unforgiving of its women, but there is compassion in how they are depicted, especially Ara, the palindromic pivot-point of the whole film, who is so luminously played by Grinberg that it makes Zhang’s lifelong regret of her entirely understandable, and maybe even worth the cost. Because although the film is weighed down by regret, and peopled with noir archetypes — corrupt cops, mob bosses, doomed lovers — trying and failing to escape predestination, it is most evocative and convincing in that middle section, when the man Zhang is, is not yet certain to become the man he’ll later be, and the fates are suspended for a moment like a dice mid-roll. “Cities of Last Things” has a puzzle-box structure that makes it seem complex and that tasks us with teasing out allusions and associations that a straighter telling would miss, but emotionally it is also simple: Nestled in the middle of this loop-the-loop enigma, skewering the slippery narrative to its timeline like a pin through the heart, it’s a love story.