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The Macao Gesture   

Cristina Álvarez López


Like the hero of this film, I too had to wait until the final credits to understand why I have come to this city for the first time. After several days of immersing myself in a festival where cinema seems a minor concern for many of the films, The Last Time I Saw Macao emits an intense, powerful light – a glow similar to that minimalist image of the Apocalypse that the film manages to convey with the merest, briefest, photographic overexposure. (1)


I don't try to imitate reality. If I emulate something, it’s the imaginary. I’d be happy if you described my films as documentaries of the imaginary. (2)


1. These are the first words I wrote about The Last Time I Saw Macao, drawn from the Lisbon diary in which I recorded my impressions of the people I met there, and the films I saw. The entry is dated 25 October, 7.44pm.  

2. From Isabelle Regnier’s interview with Resnais, Le Monde (25 September 2012).

How to approach Macao? How to film this place, how to talk about it? One option would have been to go in search of an encounter with the secret city (supposing it exists) that lies buried beneath the mythology. In the documentary domain, this would be a safe path – affording its makers more awards and prestige, and fewer complications. However, it is the film’s desire to stray from this path, its refusal to become the ‘definitive documentary on Macao’, that makes it a truly worthwhile, original proposition. The filmmakers choose a route that is – contrary to how it may seem – ultimately more truthful than the simple, material actuality of their snatched, everyday images. The basic idea is to bring about a confrontation between this camera-reality and the city’s imaginary. Maybe some part of this imaginary is indeed comprised of clichés, of information that we have heard or read in dozens of reviews of the film, of touristic slogans that (channeled through cinema, literature and advertising) try to sum up the spirit of the city in one pithy phrase … But, instead of renouncing all that, the directors embrace it, use it as the raw material for their work. There is nothing facile, vague or convenient about their decision. It is a completely thought-out, enabling point of departure that avoids anything conventional, and gives the film its unique character.


Screened in the Official Section of a festival like Doclisboa dedicated to documentary cinema, The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata compels us to once again face this question of the borders between documentary and fiction – borders that, today, already seem so outdated, but are perhaps not really so when we see a film like this one, returning to pose problems about its own status and its relationship to these categories. The film is constructed upon a narrative line that is wholly invented and fictional; but it is composed, in large part, of documentary images of the city of Macao. However, this is not a case of the typical exploitation practiced by fiction when it confidently appropriates, at its convenience, the materials or aesthetics of documentary to give greater veracity to its images. What we have here is, rather, the opposite case, since the plot is no mere excuse to grant coherence to a series of scattered images, or coat them with a seductive patina. With respect to this, it is interesting to observe that the film’s approximation of noir is truly unique. It is not a matter of merely updating the genre’s codes, or of approaching it from a neoclassical perspective. Here, what triggers the film’s atmosphere, what determines the tone it adopts, what breathes life into the genre, is what these two directors see in the city and then project onto their images. This is the defining gesture of The Last Time I Saw Macao, and the notion which is crucial to understanding how it works.


In the case of Rodrigues – whose remarks intermittently dot the central narration – this vision is a product of the memory associated with cinema, with the films shot there, and with the tales told by his companion; in the case of Guerra da Mata – who lived in Macao as a child – it has to do with the tricks of a fabulating memory, with the traps laid by childhood recall. When, thirty years later, he returns to the place where he grew up, now become the main character in his own film, he meets an elusive city, a city he knows but which escapes him: lost in its streets, nobody understands his language, his questions are met only with silence, windows and doors are closed, and eyes suspiciously follow his movements. It is, in short, a city that conspires against him, just like Vienna conspired against Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). And, like that character, the protagonist of The Last Time I Saw Macao will also end up discovering that he is no more than just another pawn in a complex mechanism.


Like the city that serves as its inspiration, the film has a complex, labyrinthine plot that, most likely, the spectator can unravel only after several viewings. The narration – carried by the deep voice of Guerra da Mata, giving the tale a distinctive and potent hardboiled touch – offers an account of the narrator’s fruitless search for his friend Candy; while taking us through the city, he digresses on the history and memories it arouses. You really need to be carried away on the river of this voice in order to properly understand and appreciate the movie: a voice whose cadence returns us to the Golden Age of film noir, where protagonists’ monologues were likewise built upon this same mix of poetic and ironic reflections, and where socio-political commentary was never absent but was not an end in itself – but rather, part and parcel of a more elaborate, complex structure.


Without a doubt, among the most beautiful qualities of The Last Time I Saw Macao is the generosity with which it displays its love for cinema. In its final detour toward apocalyptic science fiction, the film traces a connection with the concerns of a number of contemporary works that also revolve around the theme of the end of the world or the end of humanity. At the same time, the film is the heir, in many respects, of Chris Marker’s œuvre. First, because it is a film about memory, and about places that allow the incorporation of certain forms of travel-diary into the narrative; but also because it puts into practice what Marker once explained in Letter from Siberia (1957): that the commentary placed over images determines our perception of them. That is why, in The Last Time I Saw Macao, any apparently innocent shot from any corner of the city whatsoever (a door, stairs, a restaurant façade …) seems suspect, charged with a sinister aura. The pale cats and the reflections from Marker in Sunless (1983) also come to mind, as we observe this mix of fetish or souvenir images that the city displays (tigers, windows full of wristwatches, photos of Mao, Chinese lotus flowers, Astro Boy …). And the other Marker film that is evoked by the internal construction here is, of course, La Jetée (1962), with which it shares a science fiction premise, a plot that turns upon the revelation of its protagonist’s fate and, above all, a relation between image and voice-over narration. Although it is not here a matter of still frames, many shots in The Last Time I Saw Macao are static, held long enough to stir the curiosity of a viewer who – uncertain of the connection between what is seen and what is heard – begins to search for the mystery that is held frozen in these images.


Like a carrier that contains the cargo of its own History of Cinema, The Last Time I Saw Macao gives us flashes of many films to which, at times, we find direct allusion, in the form of quotations – or, more usually, as subliminal influences coursing underneath the images. Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952) is a crucial reference here; Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata take from it (among other things) the description of the city that hovers over the entire work: ‘Macao has two faces: one calm and open; the other veiled and secret’. But it is another, more wonderful Sternberg film, The Shanghai Gesture (1941), that – with its web of perverse relationships, its constant reference to Oriental rituals and customs and, above all, the charismatic figure of ‘Mother’ Gin Sling – appears to cast its spell over the images of The Last Time I Saw Macao, even to the extent of offering us the hypothetical reverse shot of what the Portuguese film does not show.


After all, one of the most prominent mise en scène strategies of Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s film is based on the game between what is visible and what is off-screen. Every important event in it – from the multiple murders to the apocalyptic finale – are treated in a minimalist, anti-spectacular way. The approach refers both to B movies (particularly those of Jacques Tourneur) and to Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). The Last Time I Saw Macao fragments the bodies of its characters, and never shows us their faces. Its terrain is wholly that of the insert: hands, feet, footprints, pistols, a cage – reminiscent of the mysterious box in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – that passes from hand to hand, without us knowing what it contains.  When Candy disappears, we do not see what the kidnappers do with her: we hear her screams, and gunfire – sound is our only guide. Afterward, all that we have to help us reconstruct the scene is a shot of a shoe in the middle of the street. A shot, incidentally, that is the same as in the fascinating, previous short by these filmmakers, Alvorada Vermelha (Red Dawn, 2011) – the fantasy element of which suddenly seems enlarged and recontextualised when put into relation with The Last Time I Saw Macao.


Perhaps the best description of the operation performed by The Last Time I Saw Macao is synthesised in its opening scene: a musical number in which Candy mimes to a playback of ‘You Kill Me’ – as sung by Jane Russell in Macao – while, on the other side of a fence, several tigers prowl. It is a prophetic prologue (which makes particular sense in a work where prophecy not only plays a crucial plot role, but is also fulfilled), immediately cueing us to the process followed by the filmmakers in shaping the material of their film. Taken as a hieroglyph, the scene offers a series of signs that demand to be decrypted. The fact that a transsexual – Cindy Scrash from Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man (2009) – has been cast as the transposition of the femme fatale serves as a declaration of intent, no mere caprice. Like her, the film must adapt its image-body to the genre that dwells beneath it. To do so, The Last Time I Saw Macao obliges us to question notions not only of reality and fiction, but also of nature and artifice. If the noir and science fiction casings mask the documentary source of the images in a film that does not believe in the physical reality of things as their absolute truth, we would then have to wonder: is the ultimate function of a mask to hide this reality or, on the contrary, to reveal its most intimate nature?



Originally published in Transit, 15 November 2012: Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Martin.


from Issue 3: Masks


© Cristina Álvarez López November 2012. Translation © Adrian Martin December 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.