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By Aaron Cutler
“Goodbye Lady from Macao” reads a newspaper headline at the end of Joaõ Pedro Rodrigues and Joaõ Rui Guerra da Mata’s short Red Dawn (2011), an unnervingly straightforward view of fish and livestock being sliced open in Macao’s Red Market. This tribute to the recently departed Jane Russell, the sultry wonder who starred opposite Robert Mitchum in Josef von Sternberg’s film noir Macao (1952), carries over into the opening of their subsequent film and first co-directed feature, The Last Time I Saw Macao, as the glamorous Candy (played by trans performer Cindy Scrash) lip-synchs Russell’s recording of “You Kill Me” from Macao while tigers prowl in a cage behind her. “I’m certain, I’m positive that my love will survive,” Russell/Candy croons, “Because you kill me, and keep me so alive.”
Desire and despair courses through nearly all the collaborations of the Portuguese pair, which began with Rodrigues’ 1997 short Happy Birthday! (in which Guerra da Mata played the leading role) and have since primarily showcased Rodgrigues as writer-director and Guerra da Mata as art director and production designer. (Guerra da Mata also served as co-writer on Rodrigues’ 2009 feature To Die Like a Man.) Rodrigues’ previous features often feel like horror films, their monsters born of the characters’ insatiable desires: O Fantasma (2000) follows the adventures of a young trash collector as he prowls for sex through a nocturnal Lisbon, his lust for a resistant stud eventually transforming him into a bizarre, leather-clad spectre; in Odete (2005), a young woman’s obsession with a dead man drives her to reincarnate him within herself; while in To Die Like a Man, an aging drag queen’s irreconcilable desires to live like a woman while retaining her biological birthright turns fatal after her wracked and crumbling body rejects the female hormones she has been taking to maintain her hybrid self.
While Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s previous work has focused on the innate need people feel for the presence of others—in the most radical instances to the point of fusing with them—The Last Time I Saw Macao is a film of and about absence. Its hero, an unseen narrator named Guerra da Mata (who shares many biographical details with his real-life counterpart), lives alone in Lisbon, engaged in a permanent dialogue with his memories. One day his old friend Candy, the chanteuse of the opening sequence, sends him a desperate e-mail: she’s gotten involved with the wrong men, a friend is dead, and she’s next. Begging for help, she entreats Guerra da Mata to return to his childhood home of Macao, where he grew up while the island was still a Portuguese colony prior to its handover to China in 1999. Arriving on the island and responding to the intermittent questions of an offscreen interlocutor (voiced by Rodrigues), Guerra da Mata narrates his encounter with a city he no longer recognizes. His former school has been converted into a warehouse for rubbish, familiar old buildings have been torn down and replaced by neon-lit casinos and skyscrapers, and when, lost, he fruitlessly attempts to obtain directions, he wryly observes, “Four centuries of Portuguese presence and no one here speaks Portuguese.”
As the film’s hero desperately attempts to reach an unresponsive Candy by cell phone, and begins to receive ominous, threatening calls from parties unknown, Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata weave their neo-noir narrative together with present-day documentary images of Macao—outside of Candy’s performance in the opening sequence, none of the film’s “characters” ever appear onscreen—while simultaneously crafting a ruminative, Markeresque essay film in which memory ceaselessly interacts and overlaps with the present. And as with the films of the world- and time-travelling Marker, one of the principal subjects of The Last Time I Saw Macao is how our memories always travel with us, creating a cognitive dissonance with our immediate present while, possibly, bringing us comfort at the same time. Yet this is no nostalgia trip: as hinted at by the film’s slyly double-edged title, “the last time I saw Macao” could refer to either the most recent time or something dreadfully final. Yet even as the film’s plot eventually disappears and the seemingly disconnected stream of images hints at a hopeless tilt towards the apocalyptic, there exists as well the potential for liberation. In contrast to the tourists that Guerra da Mata observes roaming Macao at night, “as if History could be erased with a simple click of the dozens of cameras that obsessively freeze the memory and fantasize happiness,” his search for Candy drives him deep into unknown regions, creating new memories to accompany his old ones.
Similarly, as Guerra da Mata’s voice fades and the viewer is freed from the exclusive vision of “his” Macao, each “I” is granted the freedom to create his or her own.
Cinema Scope: How did you first encounter Macao?
João Rui Guerra da Mata: My father was a marine engineer officer for the Portuguese Navy, and during the fascist regime, military personnel would often travel for duty commissions in the colonies. I was born in Mozambique, then went to Lisbon, then on to Macao. João Pedro Rodrigues: Whereas I have always lived in Lisbon.Guerra da Mata: I like to think of this film as a story a friend is telling another friend. I met João Pedro 20 years ago, and since then I’ve been telling him about my childhood in Macao. I have very vivid memories about the things I used to do, about the places I used to go to and about how I, literally, used to get lost in Macao. I see these childhood years as a great adventure.
Rodrigues: And getting lost, I think, is a good way of putting it. That’s what happened here: by getting lost, physically and emotionally, we found our film.
Scope: How did you begin co-directing?
Rodrigues: The first film we co-directed was called China, China (2007)..
Guerra da Mata: I wrote the script for João Pedro, and then we worked on it together. He understood how involved I was and that I had so many visual ideas for the film, so he asked me to co-direct.
Rodrigues: It came naturally, but that doesn’t mean that from now on we will be co-directing every film. We won’t be like the Straubs. I will continue to make my films. Last year I had a solo short, The Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day (2012), about young people turning into zombies and roaming Lisbon on a day for lovers.
Guerra da Mata: I did the art direction on that film. And I will collaborate every time João Pedro wants me to, co-writing the scripts and being his art director and production designer. That’s what I’ve been doing since Happy Birthday!, and it is what I really like to do.
Rodrigues: Yes, but last year João Rui directed a short film, As the Flames Rose, in which I played the lead actor.
Guerra da Mata: It’s my debut solo film. It’s very freely inspired by the play La voix humaine,by Jean Cocteau, and João Pedro wasn’t the lead actor as he said:. Hhe was, in fact, the only actor, and he gave a 27-minute monologue into a telephone. The action takes place on the day the Chiado district in Lisbonsuffered a devastating fire in 1988. I tried to work out a connection between a city that is burning up and a relationship that is burning down.
Rodrigues: We co-directed The Last Time I Saw Macao because João Rui has a special relation with Asia. So far, every film we have co-directed has been related to China.
Scope: How did you create The Last Time I Saw Macao?
Guerra da Mata: In Portugal, we used to have funding from the Film Institute through the Ministry of Culture. We got money for a documentary. We went to Macao three times altogether with a crew of between four and six people during a period of three years for location scouting and then to shoot. We would go back to Portugal in between, look at the rushes and organize them.
Rodrigues: Then we would travel again. I think it was actually during our first time in Macao that we understood that a documentary was something we weren’t very interested in doing.
Guerra da Mata: I suppose that, initially, my strongest contributions to this film were my memories and my stories about Macao. It’s such a cliché to say that memories are fictions, but they actually are. Your memories change according to your age and to the people you’re talking to.
Rodrigues: You reinvent your memories throughout your life. I was ready to listen to his stories, and then to see the city with my own eyes.
Guerra da Mata: In the beginning, everything was based in my memories and in João Pedro’s memories. We were thinking of confronting the ideas of one that has never been there with those of one that has actually lived there.
Rodrigues: When we got to Macao, though, that changed. We got involved with the city in a very strange way.
Guerra da Mata: As João Pedro likes to say, and I agree, suddenly it was as if the city was telling us stories. Stories we had to tell through fiction.
Rodrigues: Which was difficult, because the budget we had gotten was really for a documentary. We had great help from the Cultural Institute of Macao, which gave us permission to shoot everywhere public. We were there in the city for six months in total, and being a small crew gave us a lot of freedom in how we organized the shoot. We didn’t have the restrictions you face when you have a larger crew. As a result, some days we shot until we dropped, and then the next day we would shoot nothing. Sometimes we just walked without a precise destiny or destination, and that’s how we found some of the most intriguing locations.
Guerra da Mata: Sometimes we would plan to go from Point A to Point B, and then from Point B to Point C, but on the way we would see this back alley, and we would go and explore it. By then we were lost in the labyrinth of the city but we had found something exciting to shoot. It’s this freedom João Pedro was talking about. And yes, we had an anchor, we have to admit it—the places where I used to go, either with my parents or alone: restaurants, my old school, the house where I used to live…
Rodrigues: And Josef von Sternberg’s Macao.
Guerra da Mata: In one of the very first shots of Sternberg’s film you can see the house where I lived.
Rodrigues: But you see it from very far away, and we only noticed it after watching the film several times.
Guerra da Mata: Because it’s not important for the plot. But it’s there.
Scope: Who is Candy?
Rodrigues: The actress or the character?
Guerra da Mata: Candy for us is Cindy Scrash. She’s a trans performer who had a small role in To Die Like a Man. She’s been my friend since the ’80s and we absolutely love her, because she has the old Hollywood glamour of a femme fatale.
Rodrigues: She has had a complicated life, and what Candy says in her letter to João Rui about her life is partly true about Cindy Scrash. There is something genuine about her, like a Fassbinder character or an Andy Warhol Superstar. “Candy? Candy Darling!” João Rui says in the film when he hears her voice on the telephone.
Guerra da Mata: Candy is also the real name of the cat that appears at the end of the film, which is a lookalike of our late cat Sónic, who died during the shooting of To Die Like a Man.
Rodrigues: To Die Like a Man is dedicated to Sónic.
Guerra da Mata: And then, when we were shooting, we found a bamboo shaft with the word “Candy” carved into it. There were all these connections between what we were seeing.
Rodrigues: An echoing. When we were shooting the film, for instance, Jane Russell died. We went every morning to a café and bought Portuguese newspapers there, and one morning we read that she was dead.
Guerra da Mata: And all the newspapers were saying, “Goodbye Lady from Macao.”
Rodrigues: There were several links that were being established, a small, subtle net of connections between us, films, and Macao.
Scope: Chris Marker?
Rodrigues: It’s hard to make a film that plays so much with space and time and not think about Chris Marker. But there’s also James Bond, because a small part of The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) was shot in Macao while João Rui was living there.
Guerra da Mata: I actually went to the shoot.
Rodrigues: We wanted our film to be playful, and I think that this is a really wide range: Chris Marker, James Bond, film noir…
Guerra da Mata: B-movies…
Rodrigues: Sci-fi. I like to see the film as being influenced by all of them, but also as if we started from zero. Of course I’ve seen many films, and what I’ve seen is a part of myself, but my idea of doing films is to try to find a way into cinema that is my own. In this case, we found it together.
Guerra da Mata: Direct citations in films are so boring, aren’t they?
Rodrigues: The only person who can do them well is Godard.
Guerra da Mata: But we do have several references, like from Josef von Sternberg’s film Macao. We open with the song “You Kill Me.” There are high heel shoes and silk stockings, which are also references. But this is all because we wanted a mixture of documentary and fiction. One of the first shots of our film is a travelling shot by boat, like in the beginning of the Sternberg film. We liked the idea of having documentary images introducing a plot that was actually shot in a Hollywood studio.
Rodrigues: And we decided to do the opposite: inventing a plot mostly shot with documentary images. I think that our film, although it has a fictional plot, is ultimately a portrait of the city as we ourselves see it now.
Guerra da Mata: I think it’s a portrait of “our” Macao, a re-invented territory where we felt free to use images shot in several places in China and even Portugal.
Rodrigues: It’s like a documentary about a fictional place. As the film deals with memory we thought of an imaginary city inhabited by ghosts, bodies with no faces, body parts, silhouettes, shadows…haunted by voices from past, present, and future times, disembodied voices forever lost in the labyrinth of a mythical city.
Scope: You mention Macao’s moment of independence at the beginning of the film, and then present the city as well past Portuguese occupation, to the point where your protagonist cannot find anyone else who speaks Portuguese.
Guerra da Mata: It really puzzles me that we were there for more than 400 years and almost no one speaks Portuguese today. Macao was a gift from China, it was never an occupied territory; it was basically China with Portuguese administration. Very different from Hong Kong, which was a British colony. Everyone in Hong Kong speaks English because they created educational structures. And the Portuguese never did. During the Portuguese dictatorship there was a saying: “Portugal spread from [the northern province of] Minho to Timor.” That was the Big Portugal. In the ’80s, because we knew that the handover would come, we decided to build in Macao like maniacs, neglecting the Chinese neighbourhoods and building ugly postmodern architecture.
Rodrigues: Especially seeing this in the centre of the city is ridiculous.
Guerra da Mata: No one in Portugal gave a shit about Macao, and then suddenly we had to leave a mark. And then, after the handover, the new administration had to leave a Chinese mark over the Portuguese marks. So it’s an architectural jungle now.
Rodrigues: Macao is also a theme park, in a way.
Guerra da Mata: Now it’s a theme park.
Scope: Your voiceover calls Macao “the Las Vegas of the East.”
Rodrigues: As far as I know, Las Vegas was designed to be a gambling city. Whereas Macao has a different history, there is another layer.
Guerra da Mata: In Las Vegas, they built replicas of the Eiffel Tower and of the pyramids for entertainment purposes. In Macao you can always go and see the original Portuguese architecture. Macao, which was started as a trading port, is a gambler’s paradise today. Even the biggest American gamblers go to Macao now because the bets are much higher there than in Las Vegas.
Rodrigues: Macao used to have two islands. Now they have been connected through the main gambling strip.
Guerra da Mata: When I left Macao it was half the size that it is now. Although it’s a peninsula, it felt like an island, and when I lived there you could always see the sea. Which is something you cannot anymore. And that was a bit confusing for me coming back, because I remember that I always had references, like the water. Now you can’t see the water from many places. But cities have to change, so it’s natural that 30 years later I would…the character would be lost.
Rodrigues: It’s normal to be lost when you remember a city differently.
Guerra da Mata: Yet the character is not nostalgic.
Rodrigues: We didn’t want to make a nostalgic film.
Guerra da Mata: His comments are often critical. I like to see him as someone who thinks, “Well, things could have gone a better way.”
Scope: How did you edit your material?
Rodrigues: It took eight months, but I count all the times we went back to Lisbon and organized. The first part of the editing was organizing.
Guerra da Mata: In the beginning we didn’t have a subject. We wanted to make a document more than a documentary. We wanted it to be a fiction, and we wanted it to be in Macao. But we had all this footage, and although we had some clues, we didn’t know how the story would be developed.
Rodrigues: It was very hard and complicated. Our editor Raphaël Lefèvre came several times to Lisbon to work with us at different periods.
Guerra da Mata: By the third time we went to Macao we had…
Rodrigues: A structure for the film.
Guerra da Mata: And we were already starting to write the voiceover.
Rodrigues: Even though we thought that the film would have voices, we weren’t sure how they would sound. When we wrote them, we thought a lot about film noir voiceover, but also about a Max Ophüls film called Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). The story in that film is told through a letter that you always go back to, sent by a woman to her old lover who has abandoned her. The first words in Candy’s letter—“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead”—are exactly the same as Joan Fontaine’s first words in that film in her letter to Louis Jourdan. We wrote the voiceover inspired by that, as well as based on what we had filmed, and then we changed the editing of the images because of the voiceover. We kept going back to the voice, back to the images, back to the voice, back to the sound editing. Because there are other sounds in the film besides the voiceover.
Guerra da Mata: Sound is very important in the film. Almost everything happens offscreen, and it’s through sound that you understand what’s happening. For instance, there is a moment when a character is shot, and the images are of a bridge, some neon reflections on the water, dogs looking on as though they are witnesses, and a high-heeled shoe turned sideways. It’s through sound that you know what has happened.
Rodrigues: The high-heeled shoe came from Red Dawn. That film started with the shoe. Now we are shooting a film about the Chinatown in the north of Portugal, and the shoe and Candy’s dress are also part of that film. We like that the films resonate between themselves.
Guerra da Mata: Even if their stories are different.
Rodrigues: We have a lot of other images left over from the shoot of The Last Time I Saw Macao that we are still figuring out what to do with.
Guerra da Mata: I’m fascinated with all the changes taking place in Macao. We have another short film to be shot there. But as the funding for cinema in Portugal is blocked, we’ll have to wait…
Rodrigues: Our film will open first in Portugal and then in France. My previous features opened in other countries, like in the US, where they have all had commercial runs. But it’s getting harder and harder to distribute a film like ours. That’s why film festivals are so important.
Guerra da Mata: Films are made to be seen. It would be great if they had commercial releases, but we know that it’s difficult sometimes. So at least if they’re shown in festivals, some people will be able to see them. We’re facing terrible times in Portugal, as well as in many other places, as far as the arts are concerned. So for the film to travel to Locarno, Toronto, New York, Busan, Montreal, Vancouver, Rio, Valdivia, Copenhagen, and so on is good because it helps show our politicians that they’re wrong. To show those people that made this incredible…
Guerra da Mata: With their irresponsible attitudes towards culture. It’s good to prove them wrong with our work and with the work of other Portuguese filmmakers, even if we’re not getting support.