The best scene of this defiantly strange essay film comes first: Drag performer Cindy Scrash, photographed like the sultriest of Old Hollywood superstars, sidles in front of a cage full of tigers and lip-synchs Jane Russell’s performance of “You Kill Me” from Josef von Sternberg’s Far East thriller Macao (1952). Campy, gorgeous, and pulsating with danger and possibility, it’s a tough act for Portuguese codirectors João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues to follow. Try they do, though, and their which-way-is-up aesthetic contortions are a continual delight.
The film’s overarching concern is the strange allure of the Chinese metropolis of Macao. A Portuguese colony until 1999, the city is now practically a country all its own, with its own legal, monetary and immigration policies. Onto this alien metropolis (which the directors photograph like documentary observers from a distant future) is grafted a sci-fi–noir tale involving murderous gangsters, a tragic transvestite, a filmmaker consumed by nostalgia for his past, and an arcane secret society obsessed with surviving the coming apocalypse by morphing into animals. It’s a lot to pack into 85 minutes, and by the cheekily doom-laden end, there’s a slight sense that Guerra da Mata and Rodrigues’s reach has exceeded their grasp. Still, the effort is commendable and the complicated emotions of the piece (for a place and a people) come through loud and clear. To paraphrase the great Ms. Russell, the movie has the power to make you laugh and the power to break your heart in half.
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