While the essay style of filmmaking has seen a resurgence over the last few years with critical essays becoming something of a standard online, feature-length narrative essay pictures have yet to truly become a beloved format. Outside the likes of directors like the legendary Chris Marker or occasionally the most plaintive of Iranian or African filmmakers, film has become something inherently bombastic.
And then there is The Last Time I Saw Macao. A new, thrilling but brazenly obtuse, feature from directors Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, takes the style of a Marker or, in many ways, the quietness often found in films from Middle Eastern auteurs, and turns it into a film that has no counterpart this year, or in recent memory; for better and for worst.
As far as a narrative goes, the film follows the story of a man returning home to Macao after receiving a troublesome letter from an old friend named Candy who seems to have been caught up in something really, really bad. With the evil Madame Lobo and her right hand assassin on their trail, the film is a blitzkrieg of mood and tone, turning what looks like it should be nothing more than a non-fiction travelogue into something of a fiction wonder. A noir in the guise of a fever dream. A noir in the body of half seen action and half remembered nostalgia. Oh, and a noir with a heavy dose of references to the classic Josef von Sternberg picture that it grabs its title from.
Opening up with a older drag queen doing a sultry lip synching rendition of the Jane Russell Macao tune “You Kill Me,” the film itself openly references this classic film, and while doesn’t effect this film’s ultimately quality, this type of Lynchian introduction does everything to not only set a mood, but telegraph what type of film one should expect to sit through for the next 85 minutes.
And that is a dense, off putting, brooding and arguably long in the tooth drama that is not short on style. Structured very much as a man’s half-seen travelogue, the film has as thrillingly dark an aesthetic as you’ll see this year. Take a modern noir, and all of its dark digital photography and blunt take on violence, and ostensibly turn the camera 45 degrees either right or left. With most dialogue and actual action appearing off screen, the film feels as if the viewer is a passerby, only catching the occasional snippet of a conversation or the sound of a sudden burst of violence. This gives the film a rather beautiful sense of style, a thriller without any actual thrills, a noir as dreamed up seemingly one night after having one too many.
But it isn’t without a rather dense series of themes. While the narrative does exist and ostensibly has some meat to it (particularly during a sequence of a letter being read seemingly by the writer to the narrator while on his way to an island), the film is very much an experiment in tone and theme. Primarily finding the narrator philosophizing about the complete change of Macao since his last time there (as hinted at by the title), the film does have a lot of debt to pay to the idea of memory with regards to both its aesthetic and thematic relevance. It gives the film an entrancing and hypnotizing sense of style and atmosphere that will more than hold an audience captive, if one gives it a chance.
However, it may be a tall order, as the runtime doesn’t do the film any favors. For those looking to get a tad bit of narrative out of the picture, it’s so peripheral to the actual film, that this picture will likely run long in the tooth. Whereas a film like La Jetee runs at almost a third this length, this film’s muted aesthetic, its complete disinterest in crafting a connectable narrative for nearly 90 minutes; the film becomes a really distant watch that for narrative-leaning viewers may become nearly unwatchable. However, for those who find cinema to be far more interesting when it attempts to break form and structure, this will be an oddly rousing watch that won’t be easy to forget. It’s truly unlike anything you’ll see all year, and a perfect way to kick-start a fall film season.