#293: CPH:DOX – The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012)

One of my favourite elements of Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival is it’s ability to mess with tradition. A programme that spans conventional expository documentaries with inflated docu-dramas, the next film on my critical list is a particularly perplexing project.

Following a run of minor arthouse successes, Portuguese artists João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues finally share the co-director credit in The Last Time I Saw Macao (A Última Vez Que Vi Macau, in Portuguese). A melange of Chris Marker-style essay film, Guy Maddin absurdist memoir and expressionistic film noir, it’s an artistically brazen watch, but not entirely successful.

Infuriatingly, it kicks off with it’s best moment. Transgendered woman Candy (Rodrigues’ regular Cindy Scrash) lip-synchs her way through the sounds of ‘You Kill Me’. Lifted from Josef von Sternberg/Nicholas Ray 1952 noir Macao, where it originally featured. It’s part loving homage, but also somewhat of an intrinsic transgression, with Scrash shoop-shooping like a blonde Betty Boop, right in front of some riled-up, caged tigers. Is Candy the pussy tamer, or is she the prey? A fun frolic, it frames the entire movie and, from hereon, all the character development and provocative is taken off-screen for essayistic sake. Things start to go from the bawdy to boring.

At it’s most critical, the filmmaking duo shed some historical context to the Chinese region of Macao – colonised by Portuguese from the 16th century up until the milenium. Through the continuous audio diary, Guerra da Mata’s authoritative voice explores how, over a relatively slight twelve year transition, all traces of Portuguese traditions have been pushed into obscurity, or gimmicky fast-food joints. A fascinating exploration on the speed in which society evolves and erases history, this political subtext is muddled in with a trashy queer noir storyline of a Macao-based Candy in trouble, and the faceless narrator’s desperate chase to come to her aid. It’s not that the storyline is poor, rather that the execution, corny voiceover and rambling tone is overcooked. Just like Rodrigues previous work, most notably the phantasmagoric quasi-musical To Die Like A Man and depravity drama O Fantasma), it’s all too insouciant, kitsch and fails to say anything behind the aesthetically rewarding cinematography (which is more Guerra da Mata’s achievement, anyway).

It’s camp fun at points, but often feels hollow. With two sets of good cinematic eyes and good “art film” credentials, let’s hope their next project has something to shout about.

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CPH:DOX is one of the world’s biggest film festivals dedicated to documentary practice, with an interest in particularly experimental audio/visual work. You can follow all of my coverage here. For more info please visit the festival website.

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