Luís de Pina*


During the thirties, the 'mystery' of the Empire only reached Portugal from the remoteness of the China seas by a rare amateur film maker or a professional reporter. The Portuguese cinema has no registers of Macao in those times, when Europe experienced the throngs of the adventure of the 'exotic'.

A simple glimpse at the world atlas is enough to see that the distance from the City of the Holy Name of God to the northern borders of Indo-China is not more than one-thousand kilometres, the same as from Lisbon to Barcelona. During the thirties France pioneered the promotion of Oriental 'exoticism' with cultural expressions imported from its 'mysterious' colony as well as from Japan and even Malacca.

In 1937, Christian-Jacque in "Les Pirates du Rail" (lit.: "Railway Robbers") gathered a cast headed by Eric von Stroheim, Dalio, Simone Renan and Inkijinoff in a studio production with sets recreating the atmosphere of Indochina. The sets were designed by the Russian scenographer Pierre Schild who would later become the Artistic Director of the Portuguese film, "Inês de Castro".

Around those times Max Ophüls shot with the 'great' Yoshiwara (1937), while Marc Allegret produced "La Dame de Malacca" (lit.: "The Lady from Malacca") which today still evokes the atmosphere of the Portuguese settlement during the times of Afonso de Albuquerque.

One year later, Richard Oswald produced a remake of "Tempest over Asia", inevitably with Sessue Hayakawa, co-starring with Conrad Veidt and Madeleine Robinson; while the German Georg Wilhelm Pabst made "Shanghai Lady" with Inkijinoff and Louis Jouvet, with sets by Andreieff. But the most astonishingly 'exotic' success of those days was a work by the young Director, Jean Delannoy who chose Portuguese São Tomé, in Equatorial Africa, as the location for its action movie, called "Le Paradis de Satan" (lit.: "Satan's Paradise"). The sporadic views of São Tomé, which appeared in the film as mere 'exotic' inserts, were documentary shots by René Ginet.

"Le Paradis" de Delannoy dealt with Satan, the depths of Hell, and eternal flames... A mixture which seems to have pleased the film's Director; a Portuguese coup-de-foudre —if we can put it this way. Immediately after, in 1939, he directed "Macao, l'enfer du jeu" ("Gambling Hell" —UK release; "Mask of Korea" — US release). Oddly enough, the film's distribution company in its Portuguese promotion press-release said nothing about the shooting's location, entitling the film in Portuguese as "Labaredas" (lit.: "Fireflames"). And little was said about Macao in the daily reviews when the film opened in Lisbon on the 23rd of July 1947, at the "Odeon" and "Palácio" cinemas. Reading the contemporary press critics on the film one ascertains that the plot took place in an 'exotic' Oriental location but not a single mention related it to Macao or to the overseas Portuguese. Having spoken with Alberto Armando Pereira of Aliança Filmes, the distributing company, he hinted that censorship had cut from the full-length film the most characteristic scenes of the Portuguese presence in the colony.

This was surprising as the film had already been submitted to heavy censorship by the German Authorities previous to its distribution, in 1940. The invoked reason was the presence in the cast of Eric von Stroheim, an actor not dear to the contemporary German Authorities. All the superb scenes of von Stroheim, in a fake Macanese scenario conceived by the Russian Serge Pimenoff, had to be retaken with Pierre Renoir acting instead. Only after World War Two was the original version of the film, with von Stroheim, allowed to be shown in Germany.

Despite a cast of first-rate actors including Sussue Hayakawa, Mireille Balin and Roland Toutain, this cinematic version of Maurice Dekobra's novel was certainly not very favourable to implement Macao's image. Not only was the film entitled "Macao, l'enfer du jeu" but unravelled a place thriving in vice and sheltering all kinds of dealers and smugglers. It is worth transcribing an excerpt of António Lourenço's critical review of the film written in his usual rhetorical style:

"A vigorous French film casting the veteran Japanese Sessue Hayakawa, co-staring the elegant Mireille Balin and with the impeccable Eric von Stroheim, in a story based on a novel by Maurice Dekobra. An initial subtitle lets us know that it is a fiction movie. If the action's environment is an affirmation of the whimsical technicalities which have subordinated all fantasies elements to a stylized chronicle of life, this fact is, however, one of the most interesting aspects of Jean Delannoy's direction, enhancing the unfolding of a conflict where clash the most intense of passions and repulsive interests […]."

In fact, such a shocking Macao could not have been allowed to be shown without a general aesthetically upgrading to the 'bland' Portuguese cinema public.

Thirteen years later another studio remake of Macao, equally negative and mythical, was to appear on the world's large screens of the dark auditoriums. A product of Hollywood, the plain title "Macao" (1952), by Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray (non credited), barely survived major studio problems, to be banished by official Portuguese Censorship. The film was only to have its one-off Portuguese release on the 14th of June 1982, at the "Quarteto" cinema, in Lisbon, integrated in the cycle "Filmes e Censura" ("Films and Censorship"), organized by the Portuguese Cinema Archives.

The question made by João Bénard da Costa in the event sheet of the Portuguese Cinema Archives for the Nicholas Ray cycle, when the film was again shown in the 17th of July 1985 remains presently unanswered.

Bénard da Costa's event sheet ends with the following lines:

"What are the credits to be ascribed respectively to Sternberg and to Ray in "Macao"?" Bearing in mind the 'atmospheric' similarities between "The Shanghai Gesture" and "Macao", an answer to this question would probably favour Sternberg with the authorship of the project. Both films recreate the Orient not through a succession of sets and 'exotic' environments but rather through the expressive feeling of the actors' glances, their gestures, in association with ambiance details and particular elements of the décor. Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Gloria Grahame interpret rather weak characters in a studio recreated Macao which brings to one's mind the negative imagery of Delannoy although overlayered by more sympathetically Portuguese tones. But this frail, polarized and artificial vision reveals a particular charm of the place. Within these parameters and bearing in mind that the whole action is really taking place in a studio, ["Macao"] is to be considered a fascinating work inhabited by the ghostly characters of Ray, Mitchum and Gloria Grahame."

One must admit that the real Macao — or the 'reality' of Macao — was not present in these last two movies... and continued to evade its assertiveness in the following few.

Eurico Ferreira's "Caminhos Longos" (lit.:"Lengthy Paths"), produced in 1955, completely evaded the issue by being a total mystery. After being released in Macao, its master was withdrawn and sent back to the editing laboratories in Hong Kong, where after a series of adjustments, vanished forever. It is one of the missing films which the Portuguese Film Archive and the International Federation of Film Archives [FIAF] have been trying to trace ever since without avail.

Its ingenuously romantic story was faintly linked to some of the major historical events of modern China: the escape from "the Revolution",the arrival at Macao, a refugees' haven; the love of a young couple; and the possibilities of Peace. Casting two well-known Chinese actors — Chung Ching in the role of Teresa and Wong Hou in the role of Tam — the film was representative of the entire Portuguese cinematic production of 1955.

"Caminhos Longos" was a dated movie, a 'realist' product of its times. The plot included escape, misery, prostitution and smuggling, projecting once again a negative image associated with the idea of the secret identity of Macao. Although attenuated, it explicitly expressed the portrait of the 'exotic' city inexorably linked to the stigma of a mysterious and inaccessible China.

In 1966, after eleven years, another French connection reappeared, this time produced by Felipe de Solms, responsible for previous Portuguese cinematography successes such as "Fado Corrido" (lit.: "Non-stop Fado") and "A Ribeira da Saudade" (lit.: "The Brook of Nostalgia") (1963). The film, a Franco-Portuguese co-production action-thriller, was called "Via Macau" (lit.: "Via Macao") and was directed by Jean Leduc.

The cast was a team of French and Portuguese actors, amongst others, Roger Hanin — the "Tiger" of some of Chabrol's minor works —, Françoise Prévost, Varela Silva e Paiva Raposo. Macao appeared once again in a series of documentary shots, recreated in a cliché 'exoticism' of added mystery and legend, a world inhabited by traffickers, secret agents, almond eyed 'fatal' women, angelic and evil characters. Nothing to rave about! The only curious note was the coincidence of the French obsession with the Orient. In 1963, Jean Leduc had been the Director of the banal Franco-Vietnamese co-production "Transit à Saigon" (lit.: "Saigon Transit"). It can be said that "Transit à Saigon" generated "Via Macao" in the same way as "Les Pirates du Rail" originated "Macao, l'enfer du jeu".


I always believed — and I must have it confirmed by Barbara Leeming — that the Luso-Brazilian worlds strongly appealed to the 'master' of "Citizen Kane".

The known version of "It's All True", shot in 1941-1942 when Orson Welles performed as a cultural 'ambassador' near GetúLio Vargas and the Brazilian cinema studios, encapsulated the most beautiful sequences he has ever directed. In this film Welles clearly revealed his exceptional talent as a documentary film-maker, reaching the heights of a Flaherty, a Murnau or an Eisenstein of "Time in the Sun" (also released as "Death Day" and "Eisenstein in Mexico").

The bargemen race from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro, along the Atlantic coast and the Samba Schools, shot in the Brazilian capital and expressing in truly native carioca terms all their originality, are moments of contaminating cinematic excitement at its very best. Echoes of Welles Brazilian experience can be sensed in "Shanghai Lady", where parts of the dialogue about devouring sharks evoke the beaches of the Ceará coastline.

In 1952 Welles shot most of "Othello" in the old Lusitanian fortresses in Morocco. The cameraman was George Fanto who had previously worked with him in "It's All True". During a brief stay in Lisbon shortly before the location shoots in Morocco, Welles displayed a sound knowledge of Portugal and its people.

And, in terms of cinema production, Lisbon was not far from Macao. In 1959, in Lewis Gilbert's "Ferry to Hong Kong", Welles played an old British seaman at the helm of a decrepit ferry-boat of the Macao-Hong Kong line. The story was imbued by a certain symbolism, the major characters playing metaphorical roles. Once again the action evolved from the dichotomy between Order and Crime, with China Sea pirates disturbing the peace and the usual heroes • redeeming shady pasts by valourous deeds.

Macao was once again registered in celluloid in broken and fragmented images which merely conveyed an 'atmosphere', a sense of the dejá vu, and a "place of adventure". But this time, the sequences expressed a better defined Portuguese territorial presence, such as in the names of the sites and some of the characters. The chiefofficer Senhor Henriques could well be a genuine Portuguese. The film went beyond the boundaries of a Macao fictively recreated in a studio as a direct fabrication of someone's imagination. It portrayed a real and tangible Macao, although, still the site where myth was perpetuated.

In 1696 Orson Welles directed for the Office de la Radio et de la Télévison Françaises [ORTF] a television drama entitled "Histoire Immortelle" ("Imortal Story") based on a novel by Karen Blixen — the authoress of Out of Africa. The action took place in nineteenth century Macao, a seaport harbouring passionate loves rather than a city of adventurous deeds. Macao's figments were once again built distant from the real place. Natural documentary images of the Colony only occasionally appeared, interspersed with the scenarios of the French studios, but never distracting the eye from the intensity of the passionate narrative. Macao was to be understood in the context of the film as a lost figment of the world, certainly real, but definitely not in terms of expressive realism. Jan Dawson appropriately summarized Welles concept: "It is a mythical tragedy where the city's empty streets are meant to recall the sets of a theatrical stage."


Portuguese production was responsible for several film documentaries made in Macao before the Sixties, one of the most interesting being"Macau, cidade do Santo Nome de Deus" (lit.: "Macao, the City of the Holy Name of God"), shot in 1952, by Ricardo Malheiro. Miguel Spiguel definitely was the most important Portuguese Director who fell under the 'spell' of the Colony. "Macau, jóia do Oriente (lit.: "Macao, Jewel of the Orient"), (1957), "Pescadores de Amangau" (lit.: "Fishermen from Amagao") (1958), and "Macau" (lit.: "Macao") (1960) directed by Spiguel, had for cameraman Aquilino Mendes and music by Pedro Lobo. Later films by Spiguel were "Reportagem-Oriente" (lit.: "Orient Report") (1858), "Macau de hoje" (lit.: "Today's Macao") (1971), "Macau Industrial" (lit.:"Industrial Macao") (1974), "Uma Pérola Chamada Macau" ("A Pearl Named Macao") (1974) and "Macau"** (lit.: "Macao") (1977) —released after his death.

In an interview for the Lisbon monthly magazine "Filme" of the 14th of May 1960, Spiguel said about "Macau":

"I wanted to show how the civilizing role of the Portuguese is characterized by specifically objective, Christian and tolerant aspects. For instance, the scene of striking the flag is meant to show the school assembly and the profusion of races amongst the students. The Colony's streets equally are a heterogeneous compound of peoples of multiple races.

I also wanted to capture the intense colours of the City. A black-and-white Macao was no longer justifiable. A Chinese funeral, the junks and sampans, the multitude of colorful posters — all that screams for colour. I must confess that the camerawork by Aquilino was brilliant for what I had in mind."

Those were the days when the Agência-Geral do Ultramar (State Overseas Agency) sponsored a documentary cinema which was meant to attest the Portuguese presence in the world. And Macao, which had so far been ignored by the Portuguese directors, is finally cinematographically revealed as one of the most remote marvels of the Empire. Miguel Spiguel's images repeatedly attempted to convey the feeling of a truly strong Lusitanian presence incongruously thriving, yet lost, somewhere on the shores of the China Sea.

But even Spiguel with his inflamed patriotism could not avoid becoming attracted by the sense of adventure which was the deliriously cinematographic 'soul' of Macao. In 1967, he directed "Operação Estupefacientes" (lit.: "Operation Narcotics") a one-hundred per cent true adventure where, sharply focusing on the institutional Law and Order of the Colony, he followed the fight of the local Judiciary of Police against the traffic of drugs in Macao. It was a documentary which attempted to be a commercial film. Rather than actors, real people played the roles of their daily chores, adding drama to the basic reportage. The length of the film was also considerable, having been subdivided into three major autonomous stories arranged as sequential episodes: "O Importador de Ópio" (lit.: The Opium Smugler"), "Na doca de Patana" (lit.: "At the Patane Dockyard") and "Mayana" (lit.: "Mayana"). The only contracted professional actress was the young actress Mayana Martin, in reallife a refugee from Shanghai already with some experience from the Hong Kong studios. Myth became reality. People from the Macanese community came forward to speak about their problems facing the camera; the protagonists were not fictional characters but local inhabitants trapped by daily tribulations. Perhaps Miguel Spiguel was not aware of the fact when he shot those episodes, but "Operação Estupefacientes" bound the negative tradition of how Macao had recurrently been 'abused' in cinema to a reality which by making full 'use' of it became even more overpowering. Macanese 'hell' does exist with all its 'devils', but sometimes in a esperate attempt of salvation a redeeming 'angel' appears in the scene. Spiguel's 'angelic' attempt to clean Macao's negative cinematographic image was meant to paradoxically reveal the truth of the City's "hellish"/"heavenly" reputation.

The best documentaries to follow on Macao were those of António Lopes Ribeiro, shot in 1973 — and thus completing a series about the Portuguese Overseas Territories entitled "Feitiço do Império" (lit.: "The Fascination of the Empire") which stoped with Mozambique — and "Macau e Macau— uma força industrial na Asia" (lit.: "Macao and Macao — an industrial power in Asia") (1981) by José Carlos de Oliveira, in which this young director puts forward the modernity of a metropolis in the surge of economic transformation.

Elke Sommer in a scene of "Die Hölle von Macao" (lit.: "The Hell of Macao").

A film by director Frank Winterstein (1967).

Renewed creative impetus appeared with Paulo Rocha's "A Ilha dos Amores" ("Island of Loves"—Cannes Festival release) (1982). The story of the film fictively reenacted the evocative passage of Wenceslau de Moraes [poet and writer, °Lisbon 1854-†Tokushima, Japan 1929] by the peninsula and his encounter with Camilo Pessanha [poet and writer, °Coimbra 1867-†Macao 1926]— acted by Rocha himself.

As in "Histoire Immortelle" the Macao of Rocha was an evocation of the past, only this time not 'elaborated' in studio but filmed in loco. Above all, it was a Portuguese Macao, a welcoming and convivial meeting point of civilizations, proudly exhibiting its spaces and ambiences simultaneously European and Oriental. In the Os Descobrimentos Portugueses e a Europa do Renascimento (The Portuguese Discoveries and Renaissance Europe) (Lisboa, Cinemateca Portuguesa, 1983) Paulo Rocha explained:

"For the Portuguese, Macao remains a place soaked in the memories of its sixteenth century glories. Luís de Camões lived there for some time and there wrote parts of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) of which most the beautiful passage is "A Ilha dos Amores". This passage, abundant on utopian eroticism, metaphorically describes the 'discovery' of the Orient by the Portuguese. Its verses speak of the mythical "Ilha das Ninfas" ("Island of Nymphs") which enchanted the seamen. Camões also describes the first contacts of the Portuguese and Japanese. And, in the film, Isabel, the Portuguese mistress of Moraes, is in turn the embodiment of Venus and an allegory of Europe. Macao becomes the privileged soil where [Venceslau de] Moraes and Camilo Pessanha — men of equal literary merits — meet again."

It would be interesting to inquire about Rocha's cinematographic recreation of the 'old' Macao; mainly the restaurant sketches. Rocha said in the Lisbon weekly "Semanário", of the 31st March 1988:

"I just imagined a traditional place in the Far East. There, vast restaurants are also gambling halls, social parlours, political and artistic clubs, and places of sedition as well. People freely smoke opium in these big gathering places but they were not dens of drugged maniacs. These are traditional images of the Far East which have a long ingrained curriculum in Europe. They are also the theme of numerous Japanese prints and have been a fertile source of Japanese theatrical plays. They are also one of the favourite 'worlds' of traditional Chinese novels.

Until the Fifities there were several places of this kind in Macao. The old people remember them with nostalgia. Obviously, my recreation of these places is debatable. It is for instance incorrect that such spacious and luxurious restaurants such as the ones in the film ever existed in Portuguese style buildings. Such Oriental luxury became a prerogative of wealthy Chinese families who bought imposing mansion houses from the Macanese. These mansion houses indeed had traces of traditional Portuguese architecture adapted to local vernacular stylistic nuances such as particularly exposed construction materials, typical colour washes, covered verandahs, etc.

The interiors of these houses were crammed with decorations and Chinese carved motifs—such as flowers and birds —, and had partially transparent and partially glass tinted patterned room partitions.

Macao still has some examples of these fabulous and hybrid mansions. And it is nowadays peculiar to think that the stylish neighbourhoods of those days were exactly those where the wealthy Chinese lived. I have chosen this place [presently, the headquarters of the Health Services of Macao, in Rua do Campo, facing the Tap Siac sports ground] because it is visually stunning. The building originally was a secondary school where Pessanha taught, and possibly Moraes as well. Nowadays it is a hospital. [sic] The building's inner garden is an optimum example of the intimacy of Chinese domestic architecture. It is a completely enclosed precinct. From the street one cannot suspect the existence of such a place, but the garden is definitely there with its birds and even a split level construction, the ground floor for the use of the gardener and the upper floor for attendants. It was a space easy to maintain and relatively inexpensive to decorate with its 'mysterious' and Oriental traditional attributes. The garden layout was contrived in such a way that, when independently perceiving sections of it from the inside of the building, it was intended to convey the illusion of being the recipient of an ebullient activity where numerous events were concomitantly happening. And all this, just by suggestion: through wall slits and heavy railings together with the occasional muffled laughter and whispered tunes.

Using the spatial potential of the garden it was possible, just with some borrowed Chinese furniture, to assemble a vastly complex set perfectly adequate for the chronology of the film's story. Even the Macanese and people from Hong Kong who saw the final editing of the sequence were astonished with the results."

And only after some films made by foreign Directors in Macao, did the Portuguese once again become interested in the cinematographic potential of the Portuguese Territory.

In flash-back, Macao briefly appeared in Henry King's "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" (1955), more recently, in Jean-Claude Aubert's "Shangri-La" ("Shangri-la" — UK release) (1984), and more consistently in the Swiss Clemens Klopfenstein's"Macao, oder die Rückseite des Meeres" ("Macao" UK release) (1988).

The television drama "Regresso" (lit.: "Return") (1989), broadcast by the Radio Televisão Portuguesa [RTP] (Portuguese Radio Television) was directed by Manuel Faria de Almeida's in a documentary style. Heading the Portuguese cast were Rui de Carvalho and Luís Filipe Rocha. The way in which the film dealt with concrete situations can be still be considered as a contemporary work.

Luís Filipe Rocha was the mastermind behind the much more ambitious project of producing a cinematographic adaptation (world premiére in the 15th of January 1993, at the São Jorge cinema, in Lisbon) of the novel Amor e Dedinhos de Pé (lit.: Love and Tiny Toes), by the Macanese writer Henrique de Senna Fernandes. The first edited sections of this film shown on the Portuguese television program "Cine-Magazine" optimistically attested the artistic and technical quality of the production.

Paradoxically, it seems that as the date for the transfer of the Territory's sovereignty approaches, there is haste to register in celluloid the history of this City which is indelibly coloured with a past attesting the miscegenation between Portugal and the East. Fonseca e Costa is ready to start shooting "O Senhor Ventura" (lit.: "Mister Venture" —unfinished production), extracted from the story of the same title by Miguel Torga which unfolds in Macao... and more film projects are certainly being developed.

To close this fifty-two article retrospective on the films related to Macao I would like to recall the very first image, extremely sentimental, of my first visit to Macao. After an hour ferrying to Macao I suddenly noticed an isolated Portuguese flag floating in the vastness of the sea, waved by the gentle breeze, and beyond, the faint profile of the high rise buildings of the City of the Holy Name of God, attesting a five-hundred year old presence of history and legend, of Portugal and China.

April 1991


A research made by José de Matos-Cruz enabled me to mention other films which have also been related, one way or another, to Macao.

In both "Out of the Tiger's Mouth" (1962) by Tim Whelan, and "The Corrupt One" (1967) by James Hill, Macao was registered in the film and acknowledged as the city where the action took place.

In "A Night in Hong Kong" (1961) by Yasuki Chiba, "007 - The Man with the Golden Gun" (1974) by Guy Hamilton, "Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold" (1975) by Chuck Bail, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984) by Steven Spielberg, "Shanghai Surprise" (1986) by Jim Goddard, and "Zegen" (1987) by Shohei Imamura, one or more sequences were filmed in Macao, the location not being disclosed within the context of the film story's narrative.

Other Portuguese productions worth mention are: "Viagem Ministerial às Províncias do Oriente —Macau" (lit.: Ministerial Visit to the Provinces of the Orient") (1953) by Ricardo Malheiro, "Portugueses no Mundo" (lit.: "The Portuguese in the World") (1954) by João Mendes, "A "Sagres" no Japão, Hong Kong, Macau e Malaca" (lit.: The "Sagres" in Japan, Hong Kong, Macao and Malacca") (1980) and "Travessia— Viagem à Memória do Tempo" (lit.:"The Crossing — A Travel to the Memory of Time") (1982) by António Escudeiro, "Os Descobrimentos Portugueses (I-IV)" (lit.: "The Portuguese Discoveries (I-IV)") (1983) by Bento Pinto da França, and "A Ilha de Moraes" (lit.: "Island of Moraes") (1984) by Paulo Rocha, the sequel to the Macanese episode of the "A Ilha dos Amores" ("Island of Loves" — Cannes Festival release). ***

Translated from the Portuguese by: Rita Camacho

**Translator's note: This is a different documentary from the one made by the same Director in 1960.

***Revised reprint from: PINA, Luís de, Macau: Em busca do retrato perdido, in ANDRADE, José Navarro de, coord., "Macau - Hong Kong" — Catálogo, Lisboa, Cinemateca Portuguesa, 1991, pp.7-21.

* Researcher on the History of Cinema. Published a History of Cinema. Former Director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa (Portuguese Film Archives), Lisbon.

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