A semi-experimental work in which practically all the action occurs offscreen, “The Last Time I Saw Macao” is a cinephilic divertissement from Portuguese helmer Joao Pedro Rodrigues (“To Die Like a Man”), here co-directing with his regular art director, Joao Rui Guerra da Mata. Like Miguel Gomes’ “Tabu,” it leans heavily on a classic film — in this case, von Sternberg’s Jane Russell-starrer “Macao” — to create intertextual meaning and upend genre conventions against the backdrop of Portugal’s colonial past. Prime fest fare, the pic will probably be too rarefied for most arthouse venues.
“Macao” starts on drag performer Cindy Scrash, lip-syncing to “You Kill Me” (the Jane Russell song from von Sternberg’s film), poured into a silken Chinese dress while wriggling sexily in the spotlight in front of a cage full of tigers. Though the separate parts could have come from a Pedro Almodovar film, Rodrigues’ handling of the visual elements, song choice and mise-en-scene is recognizably his own. If Rodrigues has one thing in common with his more famous Iberian colleague, it’s his flair for synthesizing countless cinematic and specific cultural influences into a singular whole.
The operatic, living-and-breathing opening is followed by a Chris Marker-esque essay film disguised as a deconstructionist noir. Shots of the streets and buildings of Macao (and some other cities including Shanghai, per closing credits), are accompanied by Guerra de Mata’s voiceover, as he reminisces about the city he lived in 30 years earlier (Rodrigues is also occasionally heard). Guerra de Mata’s fictional alter ego has come back to this “Las Vegas of the Orient” to help his friend Candy, who has a habit of hanging out with the wrong men, and who now fears for her life.
The narrative throughline is a postmodern update of a typical noir story, with an unseen femme-impersonator fatale being chased by equally invisible bad guys, and the narrator barely missing connection with her several times. The protags’ faces are never seen, and only occasionally do we glimpse a body part or item of clothing belonging to one of the characters, leaving it to the spoken narration and occasional sound effects to connect the film’s digivid images.
The film’s literally disembodied quality automatically limits its appeal among mainstream auds, but allows the two Joaos, who earlier co-directed the short “China China,” to leisurely braid in their observations about present-day China and Macao (such as the fact that mainland Chinese are offered “a glimpse of the West through the Macanese keyhole”), and to play around with their cinematic influences at the same time.
Along the way, and very much like “Tabu,” the film delivers a message about Portugal’s colonial history, as Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata visually suggest what Macao has now become for most Portuguese people: something that doesn’t even exist on the periphery of their vision, except maybe as a vague, exotic locus of memories that contrast sharply with what the city really looks like today.
Crisp opening was shot by Rodrigues’ regular d.p., Rui Pocas, while the digivid location footage, which is of mediocre-to-OK quality, was lensed by the directors themselves. Assembly and soundwork are solid.