It’s been a busy year for João Pedro Rodrigues: His latest film, The Last Time I Saw Macao, which premiered in Locarno in August, is currently screening at festivals worldwide, from New York to Rio de Janeiro, where Rodrigues is being honored with a retrospective at the International Film Festival.
Red Dawn, a short film that Rodrigues shot in Macao last year, is a companion piece to The Last Time I Saw Macao. But if Red Dawn is a straightforward account of a Chinese fish and meat market, where in the wee hours the offloading of live produce and the quick, mechanical slaughter allow customers to pick food while it’s still alive and oozing blood, The Last Time takes a less gory, more labyrinthine approach. Shot on digital camera, with a crew of four, including Rodrigues and co-director João Rui Guerra da Mata, the film creates an aura of intrigue, mostly from documentary footage aided by an ominous voiceover. Macao looks grainy and desolate, as the unidentified narrator, whose face we never see, checks into a dinky hotel, hoping to meet and possibly rescue his old friend, Candy. But Candy is as elusive as the crimes she’s embroiled in; in an increasingly apocalyptic plot, the gang that pursues her transports mysterious white-cloth-covered birdcages. Part noir, part art-house Blair Witch Project, with a distinctly Pynchonesque wry humor, The Last Time is a movie to both get lost and to delight in.
I sat down to talk with Rodrigues on a hotel terrace overlooking Copacabana Beach, the day he was leaving Rio for New York.
How did you pick Macao as your subject?
João Rui Guerra da Mata, my co-director, lived there as a child. He left in 1975, after the revolution in Portugal. His stories about Macao sounded like fictions, or adventures, since they were childhood memories. I knew Macao from films, pictures, and literature, as a Portuguese colony. I had a fictional idea, and the film was born from the confrontation of these two fictions: João’s and mine. When I finished To Die Like a Man, we applied for money for a documentary. The Last Time started as a very low-budget film. We went to the places that João remembered. Since we had very few constraints, we’d always end up taking a different route. The city started to tell us stories. Macao is very labyrinthine; we enjoyed being lost and basically shot everything we liked. We spent six months over a period of three years and had 150 hours of material, so it was a very long process of editing; we were lost for a long time.
In the film, Candy, a performer and singer, summons her friend to Macao, to rescue her from danger. As soon as he arrives, she disappears into the city’s maze of mystery and crime. How did this fictional murder story emerge?
Josef von Sternberg’s film, Macao, from 1952, was our starting point, though it’s not a very good or a characteristic Sternberg film; it was finished by Nicholas Ray. It starts with the documentary shots of the city, but then is totally shot in Hollywood. We had the idea to do the opposite: to shoot on location but to reinvent it. Also, while we were shooting our film, Jane Russell, the star of Sternberg’s film, died. Her death resonated with us. Cindy Scrash, who plays Candy, has this glamorous aura of the ’40s and ’50s, but also of Andy Warhol. I’ve known her for a long time and the letters read in the film could be from her, even though they’re not true.
So Cindy is a mix of a glamorous, a bit kooky star, and someone you know.
Yes. I also personally liked the idea of getting out of Portugal, especially now, with the economic crisis, which is quite oppressive. In Portugal, we’re just waiting for things to get better.
How did you settle on the film noir genre?
I’ve always liked mixing genres. My last film, To Die Like a Man, is a mix of melodrama with war movie with musical, and some comedy. I liked the idea of playing with conventions. The images that you see in The Last Time and the sound could almost be independent. We wanted to make a more experimental film, reinventing the conventions of film noir so, for example, you have the voiceover, but you don’t see the persons narrating. We couldn’t contradict the original desire to make a documentary film, but we turned it on its head: It’s not a documentary, but it is one, because in any documentary there’s a point of view—it’s not impartial. This film is our point of view, but playful. It becomes apocalyptic. Around 2012 there were so many blockbuster movies about the end of the world. So we tried to make our film in contrast to these blockbusters that had so much money for special effects—a homemade apocalyptical film, editing images in a playful and ironic way.
Why did it end up being a fiction?
I guess from the start I wasn’t interested in making a documentary about Macao. But even in Red Dawn, a documentary about the way people work in an Asian market, which is quite brutal and bloody, there are hints of fiction. Some shots appear in both films. I like the idea of films echoing each other: To understand something you need to see the next film, not because it’s cryptic, but to understand it better.
Your earlier films, O Fantasma, Odete, To Die Like a Man, all have powerful characters. In The Last Time, we face the absence of character.
Perhaps this feeling comes from João Rui, because Macao he remembered isn’t there anymore. But I don’t think that the film is nostalgic. We didn’t want to make a film that is about how the old times were the good times. Cities change, it’s the way things go. But João Rui is going back to the city that doesn’t exist anymore, so the film talks about invisibility. Portuguese is still one of the official languages; there are signs in Portuguese, but almost nobody speaks it. Yet Macao has that feeling of a small village, where everybody knows everybody. It’s still a bit of a colonial thing.