Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Last Time I Saw Macao – João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata

The Last Time I Saw Macao (A Última Vez Que Vi Macau) (João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata – Portugal/France/Macao) 85 minutes

The Last Time I Saw Macao is one of those films that feature as in-between projects in directors’ filmographies – casually constructed works that have the initial appearance of being a placeholder but which reveal unexpected depths in a conception and execution liberated from commercial and creative exigencies. João Pedro Rodrigues, director of some excellent films in the expressive style currently prevalent in Portuguese art-house cinema, heads to Macao to co-direct a film with his regular art director João Rui Guerra da Mata, who grew up in the former Portuguese colony off the coast of southern China.

Macao was the last colony Portugal relinquished, surrendering it up to China in 1999, after a leasehold agreement similar to the British arrangement in Hong Kong. It has, over the past three or four decades, become the gambling (and prostitution) capital of China. In Rodrigues and da Mata’s Markerian travelogue, it is a hellish locus of vice and danger. The narrator, who goes by the name da Mata, returns to Macao, after three decades away, answering an anguished call from a friend, Candy, who seems to be in trouble. Once there, his search for his friend is related entirely via wild footage and the odd point-of-view shot, with all the dialogue off-camera.

Whereas Portugal’s former African colonies in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu are viewed as a paradise irrevocably lost, Macao in this film is a place that is now impossibly alien, even for someone who grew up there. This fits in with the reality of Macao, one of those post-colonial territories, like the Philippines and Vietnam, to have unsentimentally shed the influence of the former colonial power. English, just over a decade on from the handover, has largely supplanted the still-official Portuguese as a second language, something that is often apparent in the film’s many static shots of walls and signposts. That decline may be stemmed somewhat by a new influx of Portuguese fleeing the homeland’s economic crisis, but the Macao of the film is a colonial anomaly fading into history, the old Portuguese architecture and the distinctive black and white calçada portuguesa paving being the only legacies of the past likely to last.

A major reference in the film is Nicholas Ray and Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 adventure flick Macao, starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum. The fact that this is all a Portuguese film can dredge up about a former colony is a bit desolate but Rodrigues and da Mata’s film plays on the exoticism of that half-forgotten half-classic in a clever way. It’s not unlike the references to Vertigo in Marker’s Sans soleil, and the use of improbably bleachy low-resolution video in The Last Time I Saw Macao is also reminiscent of the great French film essayist. The Last Time I Saw Macao may not give you the greatest sense of place, and it is unfailingly orientalist in its portrayal of the Chinese natives, but as far as onscreen memoirs go, the film is enticing and is a fresh take on a hoary old adventure trope.