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Part impressionistic essay, part sci-fi noir nonsense and part political commentary, “The Last Time I Saw Macao” is a shotgun wedding of arbitrary narrative and generally random images.

Portuguese filmmakers João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues open their daft experiment with a playful nod to “Macao,” Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 thriller about mistaken identities. “Last Time” opens in loopy cabaret fashion, starring transsexual Cindy Scrash as a buxom singer lip-syncing to Jane Russell’s performance of “You Kill Me” in von Sternberg’s movie.

It turns out Scrash is playing a character named Candy in “Last Time,” though the audience only hears her disembodied voice for the duration of the film. Through enigmatic messages, Candy instructs an off-screen narrator, “Guerra da Mata” (voiced by the co-director), to save her from a noirish fate vaguely like Russell’s situation in “Macao.”

None of this means “Last Time” is an homage to a minor classic. It’s
nearly an act of found art that’s most intriguing as a chicken-or-egg riddle.

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Did the directors dream up a wispy, loony plot (which also involves human zealots turning into animals) to mischievously tie together a lot of meaningless shots, or did they have a story to present elliptically?

Either way, the film’s novelty wears thin after 30 minutes of often touristy footage of Macao’s streets, parks, swanky hotel lobbies and grotty alleys. There’s no resonance that makes “Last Time” more than the sum of its mosaic parts (a handful of images suggesting da Mata’s presence doesn’t mean much).

Da Mata’s world-weary reflections on the identity of Macao (or Macau) — a former Portuguese colony in China that, like nearby Hong Kong, has a degree of autonomy — are too thin to tell us much about the region or its existential dilemma as a semi-independent territory.

There’s some good effort in “Last Time,” but not much to show for it.

Tom Keogh:

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