The critical success last year of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012) and fresh appreciation for the works of Pedro Costa and Raoul Ruiz has seen Portuguese cinema quietly re-introducing itself on the festival circuit. Continuing this trend, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) opens with a magnificent dance routine set in front of caged tigers, before venturing down a rather more ambiguous course. The last Chinese outpost to be handed back to its owners, Macao was previously a Portuguese administrative region. Once a gateway to the East, it’s now a monument to the West.
Our window into this world is Guerra da Mata, a former resident who’s returning to his homeland in response to a letter of distress he receives from an old friend, Candy – who may have been involved in a murder. Drenched in memories and past regrets, his journey through the streets of Macao shows a city that, whilst still bearing the scars of its colonial past, somehow feels foreign to him. Progressive and challenging, The Last Time I Saw Macao does in fact share many similarities with Gomes’ aforementioned period piece, the sublime Tabu.
From its meditative narration and use of classic ballads to its examination of Portugal’s colonial past, the film is both an elegy to the medium and a fascinating insight into Portuguese identity. Rife with symbolism, Macao allows the city’s multicultural identity to bleed from the screen through a series of fascinating vignettes, playing out like a picture book of postcards from a fading holiday destination. The Last Time I Saw Macao’s narrative is merely the bonding agent of a documentary elevated into the realms of fictional filmmaking, in order to amplify the power of memories and the stories they contain. Part installation work, part film noir, this is essentially a nostalgically composed, richly cinematic visual poem.
Sound and narration play out on separate planes to the imagery on-screen, forcing us to question if what we’re witnessing is happening, or if these visuals are merely pictures from a crime scene? Similar to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (in cinemas this week), this meditation on Macao examines the role that memories play in our lives and how often we distort our own history to appease our guilt. However, instead of searching for a biological father, our unseen protagonist (the whole film is told through what appears to be first person perspective) is used to mirror Portugal’s own sense of colonial guilt.
Before our eyes, the documentary transforms from a noirish mood piece into a cinematic memoir for a lost and sadly forgotten world. Once an important Portuguese Eastern outpost, our narrator struggles to find a single soul who now speaks his native language. Despite three generations of Portuguese rule the city’s scars are finally beginning to heal, leaving Rodrigues and da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao a rather sad ode to a world now drifting out of sight.
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.