Just because a movie puts an overwrought ending at the beginning doesn’t make that ending less — well, wrought. “Cities of Last Things,” picked up by Netflix after winning the top prize in the Toronto International Film Festival’s juried section, opens with an upward-looking shot of an apartment building. The jaunty soundtrack is undermined when a man flies off the roof, straight toward the camera. “[Squelching],” the subtitles say as his blood spreads out.
But the snide start of this feature from Wi Ding Ho, a Malaysian-born filmmaker who lives in Taiwan, is misleading. Most of the movie is more delicate and allusive. It consists of three episodes in the life of a cop, Dong-ling, that proceed backward chronologically, showing the turns of fortune that ostensibly made him into the violent, vengeful man he is in the initial, futuristic segment.
Dong-ling is played, from oldest to youngest, by Jack Kao (from “Millennium Mambo” and other Hou Hsiao-hsien films), Lee Hong-chi and Xie Zhang-ying. In the first story, set in a beauty-obsessed world where everyone has embedded identifying chips, he visits a prostitute (Louise Grinberg) who evokes “Vertigo”-like memories of a woman from his past. We meet her doppelgänger, a shoplifter, in the second episode. The third segment illustrates a legacy of violence in his family.
As the full picture comes into focus, the narrative can tend toward the trite. The chief pleasure of the movie is the 35-millimeter cinematography of Jean Louis Vialard, who shoots mainly at night, taking wonderful advantage of the ways the light plays across city streets.
Cities of Last Things
Not rated. In Mandarin, English and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.