- Sirens and Flames:The Short Films of João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata
"I'm so sure that my love will survive, because you thrill me, because you kill and keep me so alive."
So sings the beguiling nightclub performer Julie Benson (Jane Russell) in Josef von Sternberg's and, following Howard Hughes's termination of the German auteur's contract, Nicholas Ray's 1952 film noir Macao. This sultry ode to Eros and Thanatos also opens Portuguese filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's presumably less fraught co-directorial feature début, The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012). Transgender performer Candy (Cindy Scrash), clad in a form-fitting metallic cheongsam, a traditional Chinese dress glamourized by Anna May Wong in another of von Sternberg's sojourns to the "Far East," Shanghai Express (US, 1932), lip-synchs Russell's song as she traverses the stage. This sequence is the only instance in which a voice is seemingly embodied; the film's unseen, but tellingly named, narrator Guerra da Mata (voiced by the director, himself), along with a series of phone calls and evocative offscreen sounds, transform the largely motionless, almost ethnographic, tableaus of this port city into a riveting potboiler. But our willingness to connect the stories and sounds we hear with the images we see, much like Candy's appropriation of the dead sex symbol's song, is only possible through what Michel Chinon calls synchresis, cinema's unique ability to forge relationships between the oral and visual. One part Chris Maker, one part James Bond, a twist of cinephilia, strained through a uniquely Portuguese lens, The Last Time I Saw Macao marks a significant stylistic break for Rodrigues, who has been making films since the late '90s, and it also [End Page 227] gestures toward the emerging aesthetics of Guerra da Mata's promising solo directorial work, As the Flames Rose (2012). Lyrics about the love that thrills and kills are easy-listening oxymorons—barely registered as such. But as multiple sites of seeming oppositions—between voice and body, onscreen and offscreen presences, male and female bodies, Asia and Europe, colonialism and contemporaneity, space and time, documentary and fiction—abut and layer on each other, boundaries dissolve and the film moves from a quest for someone to a map of something. That something is an historical palimpsest whose very indecipherability portends an uncertain future.
Candy was lured to the "Las Vegas of the East" in search of exoticism and danger, the character Guerra da Mata tells us. Soon after her nightclub performance, Candy mysteriously vanishes into the varied cityscape of Macau—filled with decaying colonial Portuguese fortifications and newly built, neon-drenched casinos. As I've written in "Ghosts of Macau: The Last Time I Saw Macao's Haunting Transnational Performance" (2016), a more sustained study of the film, Candy's abrupt and unexpected disappearance (which calls to mind the abrupt disappearance of a woman that is central to Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura ):
compels our narrator to search for her, enmeshing him in underworld battle over a magical birdcage in the process. The coveted birdcage, similar to the "great whatsit" in Robert Aldrich's apocalyptic noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), occasions the investigation of a setting which is neither fully Eastern nor Western and the search for the film's missing heroine whose very body challenges the binaries of male and female. … The narrator's quest for his missing friend becomes secondary to the film's preoccupation with loss, memory, and liminal spaces.
All these cinematic allusions could overburden most movies, but in the case of The Last Time I Saw Macao they make a formally challenging film, with no onscreen dialogue or characters, into a more palatable, comprehensible work. But they also gesture towards what is not there, to what is missing like Candy or never revealed like the film's narrator. Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata's isn't a noir, action, modernist art, or essay film. Yet these directors clearly have a fondness for such disparate modes of filmmaking, and these traces are found in their other collaborations like...