Cities of Last Things was screened as part of Brussels International Fantasy, Fantastic, Thriller and Science Fiction Film Festival (BIFFF). Here are my takeaways:
Ho Wi Ding adapted the English name of the film from his favourite book, “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster – a 1987 dystopian novel. The story was inspired by the news in Taiwan which Ho says presents stories stranger than anything he can produce as a writer.
Not a Taipei story; not a sci-fi story
Ho specifically didn’t want to make a Taipei story: the story could be set anywhere, he says. Nor did he set out to make a science-fiction genre film: the futuristic elements are there simply because the film starts in the future. For that reason, Ho says, the film can be hard to place: too genre-oriented for the drama crowd; too dramatic for the genre movie crowd.
The past is bright
The director is a self-confessed pessimist, for whom the past is a happier place than the future. The title of the film in Chinese 幸福城市 (Happiness City) is ironic: it’s the name sometimes given to old people’s homes which promise so much but can’t deliver the happiness they claim.
A story in reverse: empathy not smartphones
Cities of Last Things is told in chunks going back in time. Ho Wi Ding jokes that he wanted to force Asian audiences to get off their smartphones and pay attention if they didn’t want to get confused. More seriously, says Ho, the technique allows the audience to feel sympathy for the main character whom we meet as a murderer but who, like everybody, was born good but became that way through circumstances. He likens the effect to reading a headline about a murderer then, as the story unfolds on the second and third day, understanding more about how and why this could have happened.
Digital is too easy
The whole movie is shot on traditional 35mm film; in fact, it’s reclaimed film stock to help protect the environment. Ho Wi Ding swears by the power of physical celluloid to put a healthy dose of pressure on actors and crew to give it their all first time round, as the expensive film whirrs through the machine.
You can read my review of Cities of Last things here.