A old Portuguese colony with heritage dating back to the sixteenth century, there is more than money to the densely populated marvel that is Macao. In 1999, control was handed over from the Portuguese to mainland China, thereby making it a special administrative region in the same vein as Hong Kong. Since then, much has changed as the gaming and tourism industries have taken hold. For two Portuguese filmmakers, Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra de Mata (who write and direct), The Last Time I Saw Macao profiles a city almost unrecognisable from 30 years ago.
Our narrator (Guerra de Mata) returns to Macao after a long absence at the bidding of an old friend, a woman called Candy. Her life is apparently in danger from a mysterious band of people, whose exact reason for killing Candy is elusive as Candy herself. Waiting for her call so that they can arrange a meet, our host tours the city, both the old and the new, reminiscing about old times.
Opening with a startling drag performance, this noir-ish mystery is shot without any of the characters being seen, only heard, leaving the viewer to imagine the rest. The visuals instead consist mostly of random shots of the city’s daily goings-on. From the outset, we see that the story is not the focus but strangely plays second fiddle to the city itself. It is an interesting approach which works to a small extent.
The static photography can become quite disengaging, and the elliptical story-telling at times seems wilfully confusing. The result is a film as directionless as the wealth of stray dogs populating the Macao streets. Equally frustrating is the fact that the narrator doesn’t realise having a phone and a map on hand is a good idea, particularly when a friend’s life is in danger. A little more urgency would have been nice as well.
The biographical reflections on the city’s transformation, tinged with resignation, are more appealing giving weight to the slightly off-colour tones. The evolution of Macao and the conflicting influences of East and West are interesting enough subject matter to suggest a straight documentary might have sufficed. But then again, one of the films aim is to challenge standard conventions of storytelling and you have to admire de Guerra de Mata and Rodrigues’ endeavour.
As it is, Last Time might bore some people, but for those willing to invest some time, this is an at times intriguing look into the unique world of Macao.
The Last Time I Saw Macao is screening as part of the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival.