Film Review: The Last Time I Saw Macao

A mesmerizing but distancing experimental essay in memory and loss dressed up as <i>noir</i>-ish semi-drama.

João Pedro Rodrigues and regular collaborator João Rui Guerra de Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao opens on a show-stopping, lip-synch drag performance by Cindy Scrash, made up like an old-school burlesque singer, slinking around in front of a tiger cage. That cold open is quickly followed by disjointed shots of a paintball fight, without much paint, before settling into its willfully disorienting, vaguely noir, semi-autobiographical essay as languid as Macau itself. Reminiscent of Chris Marker and, obviously, Josef von Sternberg’s Macao more than anything by Rodrigues or Guerra de Mata, Last Time is light on the duo’s traditional LGBT content and themes and heavy on form and experimentation. Its willful abstraction and reliance on negative space will relegate it to only the artiest of art houses.

After the Scrash performance, Guerra de Mata begins to reminisce in voiceover about the time he spent in the former Portuguese enclave 30 years earlier while en route to meet his friend Candy, a woman who still lives in Macau and who’s run afoul of the wrong man. There may have been a murder—there’s a gun and a dying man in the paintball sequence—and Guerra de Mata is attempting to come to her aid. The narrative is cobbled together using random images from around the city and the characters are created purely in voiceover and off-screen phone conversations.

To the extent that a traditional narrative can be found, Rodrigues and Guerra de Mata create an old-school noir yarn about a femme fatale on the run who keeps slipping past the “hero.” But a story isn’t the point. Last Time’s raison d’etre is to allow the directors to indulge their brand of filmmaking and its deconstructionist agenda. Rodrigues and Guerra de Mata never lose sight of that objective, evident in their carefully chosen contrarian images. This is not the Macau created from pure fantasy as seen in Skyfall or the “crossroads for people to try their luck.” It is one pulled from the romance of a colonial past. The film’s downbeat conclusion nicely mirrors the overall tone that the co-directors set to convey the idea of how the Portuguese see Macau now—disembodied, abstract, a type of exoticism long since gone—and how some Chinese can get their first taste of the West through the Macau keyhole. It’s not easy filmmaking, and it will appeal to only the most rarified of viewers, but The Last Time I Saw Macao is nonetheless a meticulous, poetic paean to a vanished time and place that is never less than spellbinding.
The Hollywood Reporter