João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s faux-doc The Last Time I Saw Macao, which played two years ago at the New York Film Festival, led viewers on a mysterious first-person murder trail, mixing documentary elements with sci-fi and noir. Their new film, Iec Long, part of the opening-night shorts program at this year’s Art of the Real, also delves into Macao’s colonial past. This time, though, their approach is more delicate, less unreliable-narrator romp than sustained meditation. Yet as before, the past is illusive and in constant flux. The filmmakers juxtapose footage old and new to show us how places decay over time, evoking only a faint aura of their former grandeur.
The short opens in the now, with a celebration featuring popular music and firecrackers. After an upbeat musical number with bouncy dancers and random celebrants enjoying the infernal racket, the audience is transported in time to when the fire-cracking business had a more sinister dimension. In a device they repeat continuously throughout, the filmmakers cut to grainy footage of children against firecracker-factory ruins, juxtaposing these images with what the landscape looks like today. Rodrigues and da Mata tackle both child labor and colonialism, but they reveal their story patiently, almost coyly, via archival footage of working children and a voiceover by one such child, Teng Man Cheang. Born and raised in Macao, Cheang, now 79, is the self-appointed “keeper of the [lec Long factory] ruins,” suggesting a protective stance toward the past, no matter how thorny it may be. And even though the film’s overall mood is melancholic, something akin to hope amid the ruins flickers here and there, the factory’s decrepit, stained walls overtaken by verdant nature.
While lec Long may on the surface be a straightforward documentary, it’s hard not to notice the duo’s quintessential flourishes: an incongruent blue wig amid the ruins hinting at mystery, or the way our attention is drawn to the framing. Nothing epitomizes this better than an early sequence, wherein a carefully staged peep through the window reveals elderly domino players. The window frame is shot in color, but the background image of the players appears black and white, signaling that two temporalities are being superimposed. In the next shot, an empty domino table signals the erasure of the past, while the cigarette butts on the floor offer a glimmer of continuity. As a portrait, lec Long is impressionistic and multilayered. It’s both personal and epic in scope, and, most of all, deeply affecting.
Packaged alongside lec Long as part of an opening-night program of shorts, Matt Porterfield’s Take What You Can Carry also conveys a sense of displacement. In the film, a young American, Lilly (Hannah Gross), lives pretty on the go in Berlin. One of the first memorable actions that Lilly performs in the film is repacking her suitcase, and her automatic motions suggest that she’s done this plenty enough. Yet Lilly isn’t an adventure-seeking globetrotter. Although she doesn’t seem to be able to, or doesn’t care to, hang onto her boyfriend, Lilly’s story is achingly haunting in her attempts to forge a connection and thus establish a sense of permanence. Much of the short is taken up with Lilly’s dance workshop, where she and others attempt to convey complex emotions and thoughts purely through movement. The result is ambiguous, and Lilly is often slightly beyond our reach, but Porterfield builds this portrait based on French writer’s George Perec’s essay about space, and with such finesse that he leaves us with a lingering sense of loss, and mystery real enough to suggest that at least parts of his film are derived from life.
Perhaps the most enigmatic, Eduardo Williams’s I Forgot, at first appears to be a fairly observational documentary about youth. With stunning, evocative shots underwater and then in Hanoi’s streets, Williams builds up a world precariously perched between peacefulness and chaos, between daring-do and everyday tedium. A Vietnamese teenager, Duy, and his friends go supermarket shopping and complain about gruesome work schedules and underpaid jobs. The fluid camera follows them scooting and walking around the city, and unobtrusively eavesdrops on casual conversations, such as when the boys debate where to go out at night, or place phone calls to help find each other work. At other times the camera gets intimate, zooming in at one point on Duy’s eyes as he faces his laptop screen in the dark.
Yet for all of its apparent casualness, and just as in lec Long, there’s a subtle layering of history throughout: The boys squat and rest around old buildings, or perch atop an old house’s dilapidated roof, in a garden suggesting a kind of romantic vision of a simpler past, while around them the contemporary Hanoi buzzes with cars zipping and drivers honking, and the city skyline is filled with satellites rather than stars. This is, then, a world on the peripheries, where wilderness meets development. Duy and his friends are often mere witnesses to it, in flux, but with no sense of really being able to take charge of their destiny. This is perhaps why the final scene, in which the boys visit an empty construction site—a sprawling apartment complex, a kind of ghost city within the city—and leap dangerously and breathlessly between tall buildings, before climbing high up to see their city from a great distance, is so emotionally charged. The camera first shoots them from above, inducing vertigo, and then shows them video-recording their own feats, before capturing the shaken, lopsided city views. In a moment that is cinema verité at its purest, we lose sight of the boys, and are left instead with the images of vast swaths of land crisscrossed with roads, still untouched by the city sprawl—a world seen through the boys’ eyes.
Like the other two films in the lineup, I Forgot reflects how cities change, at times rapidly and haphazardly, be it because of a local business closing down or a real-estate-development rush, leaving the humans that occupy them to find new spaces to reclaim, and new ways to forge a connection with the past.
Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real runs from April 10—26.