The Last Time I Saw Macao

The Last Time I Saw Macao


Reviewed by: Michael Pattison

At different points in The Last Time I Saw Macao (A Última Vez Que Vi Macau), the Chinese port city is described as “an ex-Portuguese colony that never was” and as “the Las Vegas of the East”. Throughout the film, meanwhile, the city with the world’s highest population density is, in pictorial terms, all shimmering neon and in editorial terms an unnavigably fragmented labyrinth. In narrative terms, it is a place immediately of intrigue and, later, of conspiracy. A place of dormant threat and unfulfilled romance, Macao is a changed and changing city. As this film has it, its history already seems half-decided while its space continues to be contestable – in gender, political, national and apparently (or especially) imagistic terms.

All of which is to repeat the movie’s own blend of distanced assertion and poetic observation. The film’s point of departure, quoted in its weird, Lynchian pre-credits sequence, is You Kill Me, a song from Joseph Von Sternberg’s 1952 film Macao, and before it has properly begun, an ostensibly harmless firearms exercise plays out in abstract mid-shots and close-ups and culminates – we learn after – in someone’s murder.

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João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodriguez’s film is a seamless and absorbing blend of essay film and hardboiled thriller. Comprising fixed-camera establishing shots and a fictional voice-over, it contains the most skeletal of plots, a Maguffin by which a narrative responsibility to incident is deferred and an extended stay in and exploration of the city is increasingly justified. Our unseen narrator arrives in Macao because of a letter received from an old friend who lives there, and consequently gets dragged into some kind of murderous conspiracy. Once in the city, he becomes dependent upon faulty technology: time is of the essence, and through a series of text messages and botched meet-ups our man seems to be playing perpetual catch-up.

The concept of a foreigner reconceptualising alien and exotic lands by playing out dramas and thrills within them isn’t new, of course. In this sense, our man in Macau recalls Robinson, the unseen travelling researcher of Patrick Keiller’s films. And Guerra da Mata and Rodriguez’s film is further evidence of the narrative possibilities provided by the essay film, a mode of expression by which anyone with a camera (and, preferably, a tripod) may visit a location and form a fiction to match the images recorded there.

The quasi-fictional cinematic travelogue owes much of course to Chris Marker’s seminal Sans Soleil (1982), and The Last Time I Saw Macao pays its debt with numerous references to cats, in both its opening scene and with the “army of playful tigers” (inflatable and luminous the lot of them) that have overrun the city.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2013
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This stunning amalgam of film noir and Chris Marker cine-essay poetically explores the psychic pull of the titular former Portuguese colony.

Director: João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata

Writer: João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata

Starring: João Rui Guerra da Mata, João Pedro Rodrigues, Cindy Scrash

Year: 2012

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: France, Portugal, Macao

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