Warning: This post contains spoilers for Cities of Last Things on Netflix.
Cities of Last Things begins at the end, and it begins with a shock. A man jumps from the top of high rise building. This scene foreshadows what will happen to Zhang Dong Ling (Jack Ko), a former cop, at the end of his own downward spiral.
The genre-bending Taiwanese movie poses two main challenges to an audience. The first is technical: Can you follow the movie’s complicated plot? The second, a matter of appetite: Do you care to learn how a vengeful, unsavory man — a murderer — became that way? That's your call. Here's Cities of Last Things, unraveled and explained.
What happens in Cities of Last Things?
Part One: The movie opens on the last day of security guard Zhang Dong Ling's life. It's the year 2056, and a young man in Dong Ling's neighborhood has just died by suicide. In a few hours, Dong Ling will meet a similar fate.
When Dong Ling leaves his apartment building, he does so with purpose. Dong Ling catches his wife, Yu Fang (Liu Juei-chi), sensually dancing with her lover at a tango class. Her infidelity is common knowledge, which enrages Dong Ling even more. Still, he refuses to divorce her for mysterious reasons. He visits his daughter (Shin Yin), who is moving abroad with her boyfriend. The only unexpected stop on Dong Ling's goodbye tour is to visit a sex worker who looks eerily like a woman he once knew.
After leaving his daughter's apartment, Dong Ling's revenge plan kicks into high gear – and it's brutal. Dong Ling murders an old acquaintance (Ching-ting Hsia) lying on his hospital bed. He murders his wife's lover. He murders his wife. Caught by the society's pervasive technology, he jumps out of his wife's building and takes his own life.
Part Two: Since the film starts at the "end," so to speak, we don't know Dong Ling's history with the people he visited, or the people he killed. The second segment opens in the present day, when Dong Ling (Lee Hong-chi) is in his late twenties and working as a police officer. Dong Ling refuses to partake in the squad's corruption. In fact, his commitment to the rules is jarring, considering his life ends in such a lawless spree.
Dong Ling has yet another wildly eventful day. First, he arrests a young French woman, Ara (played by the same actress as the sex worker), for shoplifting. He goes home earlier than expected and catches his wife, Yu Fan (Huang Lu), sleeping with Zhi Wei (Chin-Hang Shih), the vice captain of the police force — and a gangster.
Dong Ling is officially Zhi Wei's enemy, which only means trouble. He nearly runs away with Ara, and escapes the consequences of his rivalry with Zhi Wei. Instead, he returns to the station and discovers Zhi Wei framed him for a crime. Just like that, the police chief sentences him to six months in prison. Ara, waiting outside, eventually leaves.
Part Three is arguably the most heart-breaking section in the entire movie, and certainly the most straightforward. Dong Ling (Xie Zhang-Yin), now 17, is arrested for stealing a scooter. While at the precinct, Dong Ling is seated next to Big Sis Wang (a magnificent Ding Ning), a hardened criminal who's practically on a first-name basis with the police officers.
Big Sis Wang realizes before Dong Ling does that she's his mother — the mother who abandoned him. Despite her pleas, Dong Ling completely refuses to connect with her. "Be a good person. Don't end up like me," she says to her son, who's trying his best not to listen.
What's the twist of Cities of Last Things?
Dong Ling and his mother leave the station in the back of two police cars. While stopped in traffic, he finally makes eye contact with his mother. It's too late. He watches as she's shot by other criminals in her organization. She was expendable, just as the police chief warned her.
The movie finishes in a surprise fourth section. Happy music plays while Dong Ling — now a toddler — pushes his mother in a swing. We know his future. We know her future. It's impossible not to feel the crush of melancholy.
Cities of Last Things seems to trace Dong-Ling's problems back to his mother. He's hasn't processed the twin traumas of being abandoned by his mother, then watching her die violently. What if their relationship had ended differently? What if they had spent more happy days in the park together?
By starting at the end, Cities of Last Things makes it seem as if Dong Ling's life were fixed on a certain path. Instead, we're watching the most formative moments — the moments that, had they gone differently, could have changed everything.
But there are more questions! What's up with the language barrier?
You mean, the nonexistent language barrier? In both the first and second sections of Cities of Last Things, Dong-Ling always speaks in Mandarin to Ara, and Ara always speaks in English. Do they both speak English and Mandarin fluently? Or could this a narrative trick to show that Dong-Ling and Ara understand each other better than anyone else?
Why do so many sex workers have Ara's face?
While leaving the brothel, Dong-Ling sees a group of women getting ready — and they all look just like his ex-lover. Could they actually be her clones, fixed at age 23 forever? Possibly. It is partially a sci-fi movie, after all.
Ara disappears at the end of the movie's second section. By that point, we've learned she's a) a kleptomaniac, b) has stolen all her father's money, and c) is alone in the world. Perhaps she becomes a sex worker just as the wild technologies in the first section are being developed. She gets cloned, and lives on as a young version of herself.
Why are there so many mysteries left?
Cities of Last Things is uninterested in connecting every single dot of Dong Ling's life. Live with the mystery!