The Last Time I Saw Macao
Runs Fri., Oct. 25-Thurs., Oct. 31 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 85 minutes.
The Last Time I Saw Macao serves up a title, plot, and characters that are fragrant with the more exotic strain of film noir. But there will be no Robert Mitchum on hand for this exercise, no trenchcoat in view; and the gunshots that ring out are heard but not seen.
In fact, the plot occurs almost entirely in voiceover. A narrator tells us he has returned after many years to Macao (more commonly spelled Macau), where an old friend named Candy needs his help from threatening underworld figures. The narrator himself might also be in danger. We sometimes hear Candy’s voice in urgent telephone messages, but we don’t see any of the characters. Instead, Portuguese filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata present a series of evocative cityscapes and noirish interiors—we seem to be peering into rooms that the characters have just exited. Which makes sense, because random chance keeps making our narrator miss his assignations with the increasingly desperate Candy.
The only exception to this curious storytelling strategy is the opening sequence, a nightclub song aimed at the camera by the transvestite performer Cindy Scrash (we assume this is Candy). The song is “You Kill Me,” which comes from the 1952 film Macao, a daft Hollywood noir produced by Howard Hughes. That movie will be referenced later, and it’s part of the way Last Time tries to understand its strange, singular location: What is Macao? A movie fantasy, a place to escape? The longtime former Portuguese colony at the edge of China is known as a notorious gambling mecca, but the film implies its madness might stem from its indistinct status as a tiny thumb of existence perched between (at least) two worlds.
If there’s something missing in this place, then it makes perfect sense for a movie to unfold without characters or action present for the camera. But does this get tiresome, even for a movie that comes in under 85 minutes? Amazingly, no: The selection of shots and the visual fascination of Macao keep it compelling. So does the eerie suspicion that—sometime before the movie actually ends—our narrator might have met the fate common to so many film-noir heroes.