Myself, the last time I saw Macao was in the James Bond film Skyfall, in which the former Portuguese colony appears as a lantern-lit fantasyland where Chinese heavies risk getting eaten by Komodo dragons. Before that, it featured as the exotic setting of Orson Welles’s The Immortal Story and of Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 adventure Macao, with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum.
I say “exotic” advisedly. If the idea of Macao comes laden with orientalist fantasy, if the reality is hard to extricate from the movie myth, that’s the very premise of a new Portuguese essay film cum meta-noir narrative. Even today, touristic fantasies of Asia still circulate in Western cinema. Recently, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void have used Bangkok and Tokyo respectively not as real places with real cultures but effectively as sex-and-death theme parks, top destinations for Westerners in search of lurid perdition.
This tendency is critiqued in The Last Time I Saw Macao by João Pedro Rodrigues (known for gay-themed dramas such as To Die Like a Man) and regular collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata. Their film is a deeply alluring contemplation of Macao as reality and myth; an investigation of the locale’s past, present, and future; and a fascinating experiment in form, combining visual essay in the “city symphony” vein, personal search for a lost past, and self-consciously glamorous mock-thriller.
The film begins with two preludes. One features transsexual diva Cindy Scrash pacing in front of caged tigers while lip-synching “You Kill Me,” as sung by Jane Russell in Sternberg’s film. Yet instead of Russell’s insouciant sway, Scrash looks pained while performing, her face fixed in an oddly angry rictus as she squeezes her breasts at the camera. Then comes a strange sequence featuring a role-playing army game, gunshots suggesting that something has gone horribly wrong.
Here the first-person voiceover kicks in: the narrator, Guerra da Mata, has returned to Macao after 30 years, summoned by his friend Candy [sic]. She is in trouble, following the mysterious shooting of a friend, and only Guerra da Mata can help. How? At first, by lurking largely out of shot (we see his shadow and occasionally a hand) in his hotel room while waiting for Candy to summon him to meetings with her associates—meetings which, of course, he is fated to miss.
The skeletal plot concerns a shadowy nemesis named Madame Lobo, something alluded to as “the ritual of the chosen ones,” and the obligatory McGuffin, a birdcage carried around the city by a man in leather gloves. Even at the end, it’s not clear exactly what the cage contains, but it’s intimately linked with the fate of Macao, indeed of humanity itself; think of it as an avatar of the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly.
Narrated in Portuguese by Guerra da Mata—with occasional interjections from Rodrigues—the thriller intrigue is a brilliant exercise in grafting narrative onto a diverse collection of documentary images. It’s not doing the film a disservice to say that there’s also the material here for a superb photo exhibition; shooting the film themselves (apart from the stylized opening sequence, photographed by Rui Poças), the directors create a mesmerizingly evocative selection of city images, mostly in static shots. The images are structured musically, with repetitions, leitmotifs, and rhymes building to hypnotic, sometimes witty effect: take the shots of a fish market, later echoed by the fish scale pattern in neon on the side of a boat. The film is a feast of neon, by the way, as befits the so-called “Las Vegas of the East.”
Candy continues to be elusive until, in the film’s most exuberant flourish of noir iconography, she meets a sticky end, leaving behind only a high-heeled shoe on a pavement. Sternberg’s Macao continues to haunt this film: finding a pair of discarded tights, Guerra da Mata speculates that they are the very ones that Jane Russell threw off a boat 60 years earlier.
Meanwhile, the skeletal plot and the accumulation of imagery build up to a personal and historical contemplation of Macau as reality and myth. Exoticism (and the whole point is that it’s highlighted as such) is juxtaposed with the mundane: the film is as enthralled by a garbage truck at night as it is by the bizarre video of a topless mermaid cavorting with a dragon fish. At times, the narrator seems to occupy the traditional position of the Westerner musing on the opaqueness of the East—for example, when trying to fathom a Chinese opera on TV. But, just as Macao is a focus for Western fantasies about the East, the converse is true: early on, we see Chinese tourists who have come “to glimpse the West through this Macanese keyhole.”
Guerra da Mata spent his childhood in Macao, a Portuguese colony for 400 years before it was handed over to China in 1999. The film is a search for his own past, and for colonial ghosts. He visits his old school, and finds that his former classroom is now used for storing junk. The Moorish Barracks, where he once lived, is now a World Heritage Site: the camera scans the deserted rooftop where he played as a child. Black-and-white images of Westerners at the Military Club (the film sparingly uses archive footage and stills) are accompanied by distant jazz, creating a distinct Shining vibe.
Not least because of the directors’ lugubrious voices, the film is steeped in melancholy—in that specifically Portuguese brand of nostalgic yearning known as saudade. And if one risks stereotyping a nation by invoking this quality (it’s a bit like constantly harping on Russians being “Chekhovian”), it’s worth noting that Candy’s Macao address is “Travessa da Saudade,” which translates as something like “Blues Alley.”
A bewitching hybrid, The Last Time I Saw Macao is a work of remarkable beauty, right up to a payoff evoked with dazzling concision and a coda suggesting that Macao’s (and Earth’s) future belongs to cats and terrapins. The film belongs in the first rank of psychogeographic cinema; its closest affinities are with Chris Marker, Chantal Akerman, and Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Behind its pulp-style investigation of the Mysteries of Macao, the film is really about the present mystery of Macao’s future, and how that future will relate to its past. The film’s project is to defuse exoticism under cover of exoticism—to demystify through mystification. You might say—given the opening sequence—that it’s a drag act of supreme elegance.