Hokey plotline undermines doc footage
Lots of pretty (but coldly digital) cinematography cannot compensate for the clumsiness of a tacked-on noir plot with hokey mystical overtones in The Last Time I Saw Macao, a documentary posing as a nostalgic film noir about a man who returns to the Chinese-controlled former Portuguese colony to see an old friend. We never see the main characters, and the plot about mysterious assassins never gains traction. Directors João Pedro Rodrigues (of the 2009 NYFF selection To Die LIke a Man) and his collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata haven’t gotten a grip on juicy material as they did in the award-winning earlier film. These 85 minutes feel interminable.
Calling this a “stunning amalgam of playful film noir and Chris Marker–like cine-essay” is typical empty festival blurb hype. Things feel wrong from the “spectacular” opening scene (unrelated to anything else) of the actress in which Cindy Scrash lip-synchs to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” from Josef von Sternberg’s 1952Macao with baby tigers cavorting in a fenced-off space behind her. The sequence is strangely lifeless — and pointless. A silly sequence of a war game in which somebody is supposedly shot for real adds on more pointlessness, and gradually the “noir” story of the visit begins in voiceover, accompanied by conventional shots of Macao.
Images are mostly a travelogue to the old and new city, but there is too little chronicling of Macao’s current status as the world’s most intense gambling venue. Vegas-like signs abound, and one good image is a fake Venice lagoon with a Chinese gondolier singing a Sinatra song in a mock-Sinatra voice. More of this kind of incongruity might have been interesting. The contrast between the old world charm of the Portuguese colony the narrator knew and the crass, hyperactive Chinese Macao is alluded to, and seems potentially fascinating material. But the observations of the place in the voiceover and by the camera are mostly at one remove, the kind of thing any sensitive tourist given to facile pronouncements could come up with. “Candy,” the “friend” from decades ago, is evidently a transvestite (also the topic of To Die As a Man), gradually turns out to be much more than a friend. The interrupted attempts of the two to get together involving useless phone calls, are more tedious than suspenseful. Rodrigues’ sometimes pleasingly lurid gay campiness (in other films) is far too muted here in this colorless effort. Chris Marker? Baloney!
Included, inexplicably, in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review, A últia vez que vi Macao debuted at Locarno.
Directors: João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata
Writers: João Pedro Rodrigues , João Rui Guerra da Mata
Stars: Lydie Barbara, João Rui Guerra da Mata, João Pedro Rodrigues
Runtime: 85 min
Country: France, Portugal, Macao