There is no such thing as “pure documentary.” While classified as “non-fiction,” documentaries ultimately form narratives depending on how the director chooses to cut the footage together. In The Last Time I Saw Macao, co-directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, conversely, draw attention to a fictional framework, a man searching for his troubled friend in Macao. However, this framework opens up to an honest documentary portrait of a city. Last Time I Saw Macao does indeed find a clever fashion in which to photograph its eponymous city, but sometimes lacks a certain ability to entertain.
The film begins with a rather compelling opening sequence. Transgendered woman Candy (Cindy Scrash, star of Rodrigues’ To Die Like A Man) lip-synchs to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” from Josef Von Sternbergh’s film Macao (1952) in a direct homage to both the film and the city (many references are made to Von Sternbergh’s film throughout). Behind her is a gate harboring orange tigers, almost neon in the dark. This sequence prefaces the film as if it is about to be a film noir, especially given the forthcoming backstory: an unseen Portuguese narrator comes to Macao after receiving an email from Candy, who tells him that she is in trouble with the wrong sort of people. Throughout the film, the narrator, remaining faceless, leaves unanswered voicemails and emails for Candy and searches for her all over the desolate city.
While this story is used as a sort of framing device, it is almost tangential to what appears onscreen, which is mostly like a series of postcards dedicated to the strange city. The film’s images are instead shadows of the narration – nary a person’s face is filmed and scuffles are heard when there are supposed to be fights – but you never quite see what’s narrated. This strange criminal world is a backdrop for this love letter to Macao, a city that has undergone the transition from Portuguese to Chinese rule, and that experienced a dual personality between being the “Las Vegas of the East” with its many casinos to the desolate outskirts of the city that seem to be inhabited with more stray dogs than people.
Much of the film goes without narration at all, and is merely filmed stills of the city, complete with any ambient noises that the city brings forth.
The used-up Candy is almost a metaphor for the fading relics of its colonial Portuguese rule. She is Portuguese in a foreign land, and gets swallowed up by the seedy cracks and crevices of the city and its more unsavory elements. Like Candy, damaged and forgotten elements of the city’s history, like nearly abandoned Portuguese restaurants and piles of broken statues, are given extra attention by the camera to highlight the city’s history, as well as its disrepair.
The directors clearly never had the intention for their film to sell out multiplexes, and likewise, they don’t make the attempt here to create a film for entertainment purposes. This is definitely more of an artistic endeavor in the spirit of Chris Marker. It is a meditation on a place, driven by a first-person narration. Though it definitely would be more watchable if it were more of a narrative and not a travelogue. The film’s opening, for instance, is a double-edged sword in this way, because it makes you yearn for a pulpy film noir, and that is definitely not what this film is.
Nevertheless, the film does seem to succeed in what it sets out to do. The narrative pulls together the chronicle of Macao in a clever format, and the film is shot exquisitely, bringing out the faded beauty and seedy underbelly of the city with a certain reverence for what the city has been through. While this film will not likely please the masses, it is an achievement in blending documentary and fiction, as well as for photographing a city in such a great scope.
The Upside: The directors skillfully blend film noir, documentary, and travelogue – and paint Macao in a foreboding yet reverential light.
The Downside: The film’s overall “art film” status makes it a tough watch for entertainment’s sake.
On the Side: There was over 150 hours of footage shot in the process of making this film.