A provocative cinematic poem in the tradition of the late Chris Marker, “The Last Time I Saw Macao” valiantly attempts to dissect an entire metropolitan history. Perhaps because it aims so big, not every fragment connects, but Portuguese co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata unload an intriguing collection of attitudes, themes and memories based around a largely effective combination of nostalgia and colonialist regret.
While Rodrigues’s previous film, “To Die Like a Man” (which was art directed by Da Mata) contained plenty of stylistic indulgences, it looks fairly conventional when compared with “The Last Time I Saw Macao,” which followed the directors on a voyage to the former Portuguese colony, marking Rodrigues’ first time visiting the city since his childhood 30 years earlier.
The filmmakers couch their story in a playful nod to film noir, proclaiming that an old friend named Candy has contacted them about having fallen into trouble with ominous forces. Over the course of the movie, Candy emerges as a lavish abstraction of Rodrigues’ colorful impressions of Macao in contrast to the complicated realities lurking in its crevices.
But first it sets the stage with a lovely prologue that roots the movie in the cinematic fantasy it proceeds to deconstruct. As Candy in her only onscreen appearance, “To Die Like a Man” actress Cindy Scrash delivers a lip-synched rendition of “You Kill Me,” the showstopper performed by Jane Russell in Josef Von Sternbergh’s 1952 noir, which provides a key reference point as Rodrigues and Da Mata pick apart the fantasy of Orientalism associated with the region to reveal the city’s modern characteristics. As Scrash sings, a group of brightly colored tigers tussle behind her, providing a key reference point throughout the movie with no less symbolic value than the felines seen throughout Marker’s “The Case of the Grinning Cat.”
As with Marker, a first-person narration guides the story through its scenery changes. Rodrigues explains in the opening minutes that his return to Macao has been prompted by a troubling email from Candy, but from there he deviates to discuss the city’s poetic rhythms in quantifiable terms. “Macao never stops,” he says, describing it as “an architectural jungle” and then promptly getting lost in it. Audiences may experience a similar sensation as Rodrigues and Da Mata wander through the cityscape on Candy’s trail.
There are several layers of interrogation at work here: a documentary approach to exploring the city’s current identity, the lyrical nature of its historical inquiry and a dreamlike methodology that holds the entire structure together. Each ingredient is systematically laid out in separate prologues before the title card finally appears. Having established their mission, the filmmakers shift to an inexplicable shootout marked by lengthy pauses in a ruinous area of Macao, drawing out the idea of a dangerous world shrouded by a veil of time. The movie follows that pathway for remainder of its runtime.
The collection of sounds and images from Macao, which the filmmakers find far more alienating than they initially expect, generates such an alluring flow that it gets increasingly distracting whenever the directors deflect to the allegorical kidnapping tale with passing references to the missing Candy’s fate. Nevertheless, the notion of Candy as a once-potent memory fading into the sober truths of the present eventually forms a cohesive dialogue. Referencing Von Sternberg again, Rodrigues recalls the panties Russell attempts to fling overseas in “Macao” and wonder what might have happened had Robert Mitchum not caught them: Would this imaginative record of the past washed ashore in the real Macao? It’s a curiously provocative question that, like this multidimensional work, defies any precise answer.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A small distributor may be able to garner attention for the movie in a few cities, but “Macao” will mainly find appreciative crowds on the festival circuit.