Sirens and Flames: The Short Films of João Pedro Rodrigues and 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 and, following Howard Hugh’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 (1932), lip-synchs Russell’s song as she saunters about a stage populated with live lions. This scene is the only time voice and body come close to being unified in The Last Time I Saw Macao; 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 off-screen sounds transform the largely motionless, almost ethnographic, tableaus of this port city into a riveting potboiler. But our willingness to connect the stories 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-90’s, and it also 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 off screen 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.
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More About This Work
This essay is the recipient of the 2014 Pat Anderson Prize in Film Reviewing, awarded by the Film Program of the School of the Arts, Columbia University.