"The Last Time I Saw Macao” is like nothing I’ve seen before. It bears some resemblance to Chris Marker’s essay films, but Marker rarely integrated fiction to the degree “The Last Time I Saw Macao” does, except in his sci-fi short “La Jetée.” Portuguese directors João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata have based the film on the latter’s life but expanded its scope to encompass wildly conspiratorial imaginings. At the same time, they’re grounded in some sense of reality. The film’s soundtrack is mostly fictional, its images mostly documentary.
Set on the island of Macao, which now belongs to China but was a Portuguese colony for 400 years, “The Last Time I Saw Macao” documents Guerra da Mata’s visit to the city, where he grew up in the ‘70s, in search of a transgender friend, Candy. The film opens with a performance by drag queen Cindy Scrash, lip-synching Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” (from the soundtrack of Josef von Sternberg’s “Macao”) in front of a tiger cage. Then it shows several men shooting at each other, followed by Guerra da Mata approaching Macao from a boat. He tries to get in touch with Candy, but he can’t get his bearings on the island and keeps showing up too late. Her calls and text messages grow increasingly desperate as she hints she’s being tracked down by a conspiracy tied to the animal signs of the zodiac.
There’s little camera movement in “The Last Time I Saw Macao.” The film evokes “La Jetée” in that it suggests a procession of still photos, even though there’s movement within its images. The filmmakers have an uncanny eye for handsome framing and finding the perfect angle almost all the time. If they switched to photography, they could compete with Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman in the art world.
Guerra da Mata is heard but not seen. Early on, he muses that Macao is simultaneously one of the friendliest and loneliest cities in the world. “The Last Time I Saw Macao” brings out its alienating qualities as beautiful as it is. In life, Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata are partners. In the film, Guerra da Mata doesn’t acknowledge that anyone else is accompanying him on this trip or taking film alongside him. He’s on a quest for Candy, but she remains an absence at the heart of the film.
“The Last Time I Saw Macao” makes overt reference to Hollywood films — besides the von Sternberg homage that kicks it off, it’s essentially a film noir. Yet it delves into regions where few film noirs dared to go. In the 1940s and ‘50s, censorship prevented them from including transgender characters, but even in the post-Tarantino ‘90s neo-noir cycle, LGBT characters remained invisible, with the exception of the Wachowskis’ lesbian-themed “Bound.” Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s sense of glamour comes from Candy, as well as their inklings of danger — she’s this film’s femme fatale. Her disappearance takes on allegorical significance, as she also comes to represent the Portuguese presence in Macao.
Mixing documentary and fiction isn’t so daring these days — earlier this year, the Taviani brothers’ “Caesar Must Die” and Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” did it. What makes “The Last Time I Saw Macao” so unique is the way it cooks the two into an unclassifiable stew. The images and soundtrack offer totally divergent takes on the same material. For all the film’s beauty, its images are often rather plainspoken: merchants selling fish on the street, tourists having their photos taken by a statue of Mao Zedong, and lots of animals. The filmmakers appear to share Marker’s fascination with cats and also seem pretty fond of dogs.
“The Last Time I Saw Macao” could be accused of Orientalism, but its most exotic scene is Cindy’s opening number, performed by a white European. Guerra da Mata is returning to his roots by going back to Macao rather than acting as a tourist. The colonial dreams of Macao’s Portuguese settlers, like the young Guerra da Mata, are now dead — he complains he can’t find anyone who speaks Portuguese — and the city’s tourists are mostly Chinese from the mainland (who need a special visa to visit Macao). Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata do a better job of deconstructing Portugal’s colonial project than their compatriot Miguel Gomes did with last year’s Africa-set “Tabu.”
Through films like “Two Drifters” and “To Die Like a Man,” Rodrigues has shown himself to be one of the world’s most talented LGBT directors, as well as a worthy peer of Portuguese filmmakers like Gomes and Pedro Costa. Until now, Guerra da Mata has only made shorts. The two directors’ partnership has worked wonders. At once, “The Last Time I Saw Macao” is a fine example of personal filmmaking and a fantastic city symphony.
THE LAST TIME I SAW MACAO |Directed by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata | In Portuguese with English subtitles | The Cinema Guild | Opens Sep. 13 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com