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.