‘Cities of Last Things’ on Netflix: That Confusing Ending Explained
The first thing you need to know about Cities of Last Things, a new Taiwanese film on Netflix directed by Ho Wi Ding, is that it’s told in reverse chronological order. The second thing is that it’s told in three different genres. When you put that on top of the fact that you may not speak Mandarin and are watching the film with subtitles, the Cities of Last Things is a very confusing and difficult watch. But the film does make sense and is worth your time if you’re willing to give it your undivided attention. Or you could just read a Cities of Last Things plot recap, like the one I wrote for you below. Enjoy!
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CITIES OF LAST THINGS PLOT?
Cities of Last Thing tells the life story of one man, Zhang Dong Ling, in reverse chronological order. The film opens on Zhang’s death by suicide, hurling himself off a high-rise building. The remaining film is told in three segments, focusing in on three key points in Zhang’s life. The first segment—a sci-fi film—takes place in a dystopian imagining of the year 2035. Zhang (played by actor Jack Kao) is an ex-police officer. He visits his wife, to whom he is technically still married, though they are estranged and she is dating a new man, and their daughter, who he has not seen in a long time. He meets up with a prostitute, who reminds him of someone he used to know. Though he loves his daughter, he is a violent, abusive man toward almost everyone else. He once killed an old acquaintance in the hospital, and at the end of the first segment, we learn he strangled his wife to death just before his suicide.
The second segment, now a film noir, takes place roughly in the present-day. Zhang, now played by Lee Hong-chi, is a rookie police officer who refuses to partake in cop corruption and is violently beaten for it. He learns that his wife is sleeping with another man, and, distraught, he spends an evening with a French girl that he earlier caught shoplifting (played by the same actress as the prostitute in the first segment).
In the third segment, now a drama, we flash back even further and meet Zhang as a teenager (played by Xie Zhang-Yin). Teen Zhang is arrested for stealing a scooter, and at the station meets a bigtime mob leader named Big Sister Wang, to whom he realizes he has a connection through his grandmother.Photo: COURTESY OF CHANGHE FILMS
WHAT IS THE CITIES OF LAST THINGS PLOT TWIST?
While speaking to the mob boss Big Sister Wang in the police station, Zhang realizes she is his long-lost mother, whom he previously believed was dead. He refuses to accept it, and won’t speak to her as she is taken away to prison. Then, as they look at each in parallel police cars, an attacker shoots his mother through the window. He cries out and screams for his mother, but she is dead.
HOW DOES CITIES OF LAST THINGS END?
In the final and shortest segment of the film we are at the earliest point in Zhang’s life. Now played by Hsieh Chang-Ying, we learn that as a toddler, Zhang has one rare happy memory with his mother at a park. The final shot is of his mother’s smiling face.
DOES THE CITIES OF LAST THINGS ENDING MAKE SENSE?
It does! Now knowing all the trauma Zhang suffered, we can trace his path to violence, anger, and depression. You just might need to watch the film twice to connect all the dots.