VIFF 2012: Director João Pedro Rodrigues' The Last Time I Saw Macao defies genres
The Last Time I Saw Macao has been called a docudrama, cinematic poem, experimental film, essay film, queer noir, and city symphony. Whatever you call it, it clearly evades easy categorization.
"I kind of like that confusion," Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues says on the line from a film shoot in Spain. "I don't know what to call it. I think that was one of the things in the idea of making this film."
What Rodrigues says began as a documentary with his partner and codirector João Rui Guerra da Mata became, like the city of Macao itself, multilayered and transformed into a hybrid film that incorporates a multitude of cinematic elements.
The Last Time I Saw Macao (which screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 29 and October 2) follows Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata to Macao, where Guerra da Mata grew up (Guerra da Mata's father was in the navy). After a 30-year absence, Guerra da Mata revisits the former Portuguese colony. But they frame it within a film noir narrative about their search for their transgender friend Candy (Cindy Scrash), who has been caught up in dangerous and mysterious developments after a friend is murdered during paintball war games. The two explore the postcolonial city, known as the Las Vegas of Asia, simultaneously deconstructing and reconstructing its complex, exoticized identity.
What's more, the film makes references to the 1952 Josef von Sternberg movie Macao starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. It does so explicitly with its film noir elements and its opening featuring Candy lip-syncing "You Kill Me" (performed by Russell in Von Sternberg's film). But it also does so in its conceptual approach.
"It's [the Von Sternberg film] a portrait of Macao but it's a portrait that is totally invented and it's shot not in Macao but in Hollywood, in the RKO studios," Rodrigues says. "Our idea was to make something that was shot in real Macao but then in a way it was reinvented by our way of looking at that city."
As stated in the film, nothing in Macao is quite what it seems to be; Rodrigues says that some of the images in his film were also shot in other cities in China.
"We tried to create a fictional place that it's still Macao but it's also not Macao. It's kind of a subjective place," he says. "Basically it a portrait of the city of how we saw it while we were there and after thinking about it when we were back in Portugal editing because it took a long time to edit this film. The film was basically made during that editing process."
It's no wonder the editing was such a time-consuming process. What adds to the complexity of the film is the fact that the characters are never seen, only heard through voiceovers (which also is a film noir nod). Instead, shots of the city—of shady streets at night, neon lights, the harbour, lanterns—illustrate or are juxtaposed with their words.
While in Macao, the filmmaking duo also shot the short film "Red Dawn" (which played at last year's VIFF).
"When we went first to Macao, we had this idea of going back to the places that he remembered," Rodrigues explains." So everything started from those places, and the Red Market was one of those places that he had a really vivid memory about it, of going with his mother shopping. We went there…more than once, and when…we came back to Lisbon, we thought perhaps just the Red Market…was a subject for a separate film."
Another short film by Rodrigues, "Morning of Saint Anthony's Day", also screens at this year's VIFF (September 28 and 30). While the film is about Saint Anthony's Day (for the patron saint of Lisbon), on June 13, Rodrigues says it's actually a study of movement.
What inspired his film was what he observed of all the partying and drinking taking place while he himself, after a night out with friends, remained sober.
"I took the first subway home, which is at 6:30 in the morning in Lisbon, and everyone was lying on the floor, half-asleep, drunk, vomiting," he says. "And when I got out in my subway station, I saw a group of people getting out and they were a little bit like zombies."
"And so I had this idea of making a film just about people back home by subway and…this idea of people who automatically know where they live and they automatically move in the direction of their homes even if they are in an altered state, in a way. And I saw the film as a kind of choreography of movement because it's a lot about movement and a lot about people walking, a lot about how different people walk, and the way they walk."
Rodrigues will be attending the festival not only for the screening of his films but also because he's a juror for the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema. The $5,000 award is given to a new director from Pacific Asia. This year, Rodrigues joins filmmaker Shinozaki Makoto and film writer Chuck Stephens on the jury.
Rodrigues is particularly pleased to be visiting Vancouver because of his great respect for Dragons and Tigers programmer Tony Rayns.
"He is one of the most important persons in the discovery of Asian cinema, and he is a friend," Rodrigues says, "and so for me it is a very big pleasure to be a part of this jury."
The award will be presented on October 4 at the screening of the China-France coproduction Mystery.
You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.