Co-directed by João Pedro Rodrigues with frequent collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata, The Last Time I Saw Macao owes a more crucial debt to Mariano Llinás’s 245-minute masterpiece, Extraordinary Stories, than to Rodrigues’s own reputation as Portugal’s premiere queer auteur. The new film, a noir-documentary whatzit that renders almost all of its characters in off-screen space, begins with an extravagantly lit lip-sync performance by transvestite Cindy Scrash. You think you know where you are, but the filmmakers pull the rug out almost immediately. Following the delicious cold open, the story shifts gears to a paintball battle that provides a clue as to the filmmakers’ use of negative space: There’s no paint, and spatial disorientation skitters across the red line as it did in the bank heist in Bresson’s L’Argent. Under the noisy war games, a real murder is committed, as an unseen gunman takes out an invisible target. We only have a close-up of the weapon and the victim’s dying rasp to tell us that something is amiss, and the death sets in motion a sort of dime-novel crime picture—stranger in a foreign city, in too deep—that has its roots in pulp fiction stories and films of the 1940s and ’50s. The touchstone is, of course, Howard Hughes’s Macao: Scrash’s song is taken from the 1952 film, where it was sung by Jane Russell, and The Last Time I Saw Macao’s minimal story borrows from the abortive Sternberg picture’s equally minimal noir tropes, namely the one about “Leave Macao if you know what’s good for you.”
This “Macao Confidential” thread is built and substantiated by the protagonist’s off-screen voice, while the images wander about the Chinese port city, in a manner inspired both by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Extraordinary Stories. With images of city life, traffic, and the Macao skyline, Guerra da Mata and Rodrigues lull the audience into a melancholy fugue state. The voiceover, hushed and never insistent, frequently wanders away from the noir vein to reflect on the title subject, 20-year-old memories of the protagonist’s childhood and upbringing in the former Portuguese colony. The essayistic remembrances provide the filmmakers with a brilliant exit strategy when the noir business has nowhere to go but in circles. Indeed, when earlier, seemingly free-associative mentions of the Mayan 2012 prophecy turn ludicrously literal, the payoff probably wouldn’t have been possible had the crime story been written and filmed the usual way. While the fatalistic turn The Last Time I Saw Macao takes in its final minutes seems simultaneously, disappointingly over-determined and abrupt, the directors’ aplomb in pulling off a Llinás-esque haunted semi-fiction nevertheless exerts a pleasing spell over the viewer.