Directed by the Portuguese pair of João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, The Last Time I Saw Macao is an enveloping blend of essay film and film noir, the film maudit Macao by Josef von Sternberg (who was fired and replaced by Nicholas Ray during shooting), and Chris Marker’s meditation on time and place Sans soleil. Guerra da Mata plays himself as the main character though we never actually see him, just a stray arm or hand. It’s not shot in the first person, he just exists somewhere off-screen telling us the story in narration. In fact, no one on screen ever actually speaks: all the voices we hear are either off-screen or lip-syncs. The film begins with just such a performance, a drag queen performing a lip-sync to Jane Russell’s “You Kill Me” from Macao. Later, we learn that this same performer is an old friend of Guerra da Mata’s, and he’s been summoned back to Macao, the former Portuguese colony in China where he was born and grew up and which he hasn’t been back to for many years, in order to help her out of some kind of jam: lives are in danger.
Much of the first half of the film follows Guerra da Mata as he revisits locations he remembers from childhood: his old school, a colonial government building, and so on, while he muses on the history of the city and its unique place between two countries (though governed by Portugal for hundreds of years, the two cultures never mixed, as happened to some extent in Hong Kong with the English–he doesn’t speak Chinese and can’t find anyone who speaks Portuguese). The images the two directors capture of the city evoke this alien, “singular and bizarre” world, a city where even the TV is upside down, where a casino employs a Chinese gondolier who sings Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” while he works. Slowly, the mystery plot reveals itself, but Guerra da Mata tends to get sidetracked into digressions about the city, just as every time he is supposed to be at a certain place at a certain time to meet someone, he ends up getting lost.
Like Godard’s Alphaville, this unsettling modern landscape forms an ideal backdrop for a noir tale, one involving an underworld gang, the Chinese Zodiac, and a birdcage recalling the Great Whatsit from Kiss Me Deadly that can turn people into animals, that ends with a man running at night through the labyrinthine city while fireworks explode (a climax reminiscent of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and/or the film it borrows from, The Bribe). The next morning’s epilogue finds the city enveloped in an apocalyptic smog. This intersection between city silly symphony and Hollywood hodgepodge, between travelogue and film noir, between essay and pastiche, forms a liberating kind of cinematic world: one where anything is possible because everything is constructed: reality is fiction and vice versa.
One way to take this is as a story of Chinese Macao descending into a primitive, animalistic hellscape once the Europeans abandon the city. A better way is as the story of a European explorer who keeps getting lost, leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him, creates an environmental apocalypse, and then disappears, allowing the original, enduring culture to return to prominence. Beneath the ephemerality of modernity, its casinos and show tunes and movies, lies an ancient, foundational, unknowable humanity.