Last Time I Saw Macao
Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata
This intriguing blend of essay film and stylized homage opens with a lip-synced rendition of Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” delivered by the sultry trans performer Cindy Scrash, dramatically backlighted with a pair of tigers pacing uneasily behind her. It’s a striking scene—surreal, nostalgic and mysterious—that burns like an after-image. Directed by Portuguese filmmakers Rodrigues (To Die Like a Man, O fantasma) and Guerra da Matta, Macao is a moody and formally playful ode to the titular city that combines elements of personal narrative, travelogue, and neo-noir, recalling the genre-blurring work of Chris Marker.
The opening scene marks the last time we see Candy (Scrash), a prostitute who’s run afoul of the Macao underworld, and whose disappearance sets off the story. She subsequently appears only in desperate text messages and voicemails to the unnamed protagonist, a longtime friend who has traveled from Portugal at her behest. Codirector Guerra da Matta plays a dual role, narrating the film as both the unnamed hero of the noir and as himself, revisiting memories of a childhood spent there some 30 years ago, though the camera never lets us see him entirely. The elliptical film alternates between his attempt to rescue Candy and his reflections on the peculiar history of Macao, a former Portuguese colony and Communist-ruled Chinese city now nicknamed “the Las Vegas of the East”; its greatest pleasures derive from the bizarre cultural convergences the filmmakers capture in observational street scenes, such as the Chinese tourists in Christmas garb taking their photos with a life-size cutout of Mao, as well as the stunning landscape shots of the mist-shrouded harbor and the city’s Blade Runner-esque towers at night. Candy’s fate never really provides dramatic tension (nor is it supposed to), and her story, which is not-accidentally thin, essentially operates as scaffolding for the atmospheric portrait of the city—one that evokes Macao less as a physical place than as a psychic and emotional state, as signified in several snippets taken from Macao, Josef von Sternberg’s forgotten 1952 noir starring Jane Russell. While the new Macao never quite lives up to the intensity of its first moments, it still offers a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable visit to a strange land many of us will never see.
Opens September 13