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Cinematic Macau

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Juliana Loh on 22 Apr 2018

The Straits Times

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The former Portuguese colony has been the set of many productions, from Hong Kong triad movies to Korean soaps to Hollywood blockbusters

 

Macau has been an appealing backdrop of different film genres through the decades - romantic comedies, action thrillers, mafia-themed plots and more.

 

The former Portuguese colony is often a stand-in for old Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, given the nostalgia evoked by its places and spaces, left in their original state from the 1950s.

 

Rich in 16th-century Portuguese monuments and cobblestone streets, and also glitzy casinos and mammoth resorts, Macau is often the location of choice for Hong Kong triad movies and Hollywood blockbusters and, more recently, Korean soaps.

 

"Despite the modern glitz in many quarters, the older parts of Macau retain much charm and picturesque interest," observes historian and author Jason Wordie, who wrote Macao: People, Places Past And Present (2013).

 

"In particular, Macau allows the contemporary film-maker to re-create a nostalgic streetscape atmosphere redolent of other Far Eastern port cities that have otherwise been almost completely obliterated by massive redevelopment; neighbouring Hong Kong immediately comes to mind in this regard," he tells The Sunday Times.

 

FILM NOIR BEGINNINGS

 

Macau first made its way into Western cinema in 1939, when L'Enfer Du Jeu (meaning Gambling Hell) - one of the last exotic adventure French film noir by renowned director Jean Delannoy - was shot there at the start of World War II.

 

During this era, foreign movie directors were just beginning to discover Asia, in particular China and its Oriental allure.

 

Similar movies of the era include The Blue Express (1929) from Russia, The Shanghai Express (1932) from the United States and La Bataille (1934) from France.

 

Gambling in Macau was legalised by the Portuguese in the 1850s. Casinos featured in L'Enfer Du Jeu were local and nothing like the first Las Vegas-style glitzy casino Lisboa Hotel, which was built in 1970.

 

Decades later, Hollywood blockbuster Man With The Golden Gun, a James Bond movie, was shot in Macau in 1974.

 

So was the thrilling car chase down the "streets of Shanghai" in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), which was filmed on Rua da Felicidade, Macau's former red-light district.

 

This area is a tourist favourite for photography. Navigate this with the Experience Macao mobile app (http://en.macaotourism.gov.mo/corner/phone_apps.php).

 

At the end of Rua da Felicidade are local inns where Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) were filmed.

 

The 1950s architecture is evident, as are the repetitive motifs of "brise-soleil" bricks and elements of the utilitarian Brutalist-style architecture set against Art Deco 1930s shophouses, similar to those in Singapore.

 

Shanghai Surprise (1986), starring Madonna and Sean Penn, featured scenes shot in Taipa Village and the Macao Peninsula by the harbour. Macau was a location double for the plot set in 1930s Shanghai.

 

If you set off before 9am, you will see fishermen coming back to shore with their daily catch. Begin your walk at Ponte 16, once a pier in the inner harbour of Macau and now occupied by a hotel, the Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16.

 

From here, walk along the port, stepping into the local eateries for a fresh seafood lunch along the way.

 

The evenings in the area are equally cinematic as it comes alive with streetside pushcarts - order wonton noodles and also tau foo faa and tong shui, which are traditional Cantonese dessert soups.

 

In 2009, Vengeance, a Franco-Hong Kong film starring the late French pop star Johnny Hallyday and Simon Yam (as the head honcho of the Macau mafia) featured the iconic Macau skyline with Grand Lisboa and Lisboa Hotel in the background.

 

Grand Lisboa (www.grandlisboa hotels.com/en/grandlisboa) is an iconic gold "pineapple" dome building while Lisboa Hotel (www.grandlisboahotels.com/en/hotelisboa) is the first casino hotel built in 1970 by Stanley Ho.

 

A representative at the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau sheds light on the popularity of filming requests in the historic district of the Macau Peninsula, saying: "Macau is a melting pot of Chinese and Western cultures, with a unique geographical location and historical background.

 

"Every street and lane is filled with the integration of Chinese and Portuguese cultures, architecture, humanities and daily lives."

 

The urban layout in the heart of the Macau Peninsula is peppered with colonial Portuguese elements, from cobblestone streets to 17th-century buildings.

 

"The adjacent squares and streets connect the historical districts, centred on the old district of Macau. There are 22 buildings and eight squares inside, serving as an important factor that attracts international producers to shoot in Macau."

 

KOREAN DREAM

 

In recent years, Korean directors have also made Macau a shooting location of choice. Popular Korean dramas take place in Macau's casino hotels for their protagonists' romantic encounters. They include Fated To Love You (2014) starring Jang Hyuk and Jang Nara, with many scenes taking place in The Venetian (www.venetianmacao.com).

 

Korean drama series Boys Over Flowers (2009) has romantic scenes unfolding on a gondola ride in The Venetian, a backdrop complete with Venetian balconies, ceiling murals and fake blue skies.

 

Another popular drama Princess Hours (2006), starring Korean star Yoon Eun Hye, is shot against the backdrop of distinct Macau architecture.

 

The Parisian Macao opened last year and Korean pop star Psy was quick to make the hotel his choice of location for his New Face music video. The interiors are inspired by Parisian old-world baroque extravagance married with the sleek industrial chic design of La Chine, the Chinese restaurant in the miniature Eiffel Tower, which in turn pays homage to Monsieur Gustave Eiffel.

 

Korean movie The Thieves (2012) used the City of Dreams casino as its set to the gambling and robbery plot, juxtaposed against the colonial architecture of old Macau. Director Choi Dong Hoon chose San Va Inn, the former 1930s private club and hotel, as a shoot location, given its nostalgic and retro vibe.

 

"I like how the city's establishments look ordinary from the outside, but are stunning when you're inside," the South China Morning Post quoted Choi as saying.

 

Save for film buffs, San Va Inn off Rua da Felicidades is lesser known to the public.

 

Independent Hong Kong film Isabella (2006), about a father-daughter romance, was filmed entirely in Macau, set largely in San Va Inn.

 

Wong's classic In The Mood For Love and also the scene of Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Zhang Ziyi in 2046 - were also filmed in San Va Inn and Tong Fang Guest House, both poorly lit walk-up guest houses reminiscent of the 1950s.

 

"I shot parts of In The Mood For Love and 2046 in Macau. What interested me was not the gambling or triad relations, but the remnants of Macau's colonial past," Wong said at a film festival, as reported by Macau Closer magazine.

 

BRIGHT LIGHTS, CASINO CITY

 

It goes without saying that Macau has been the choice for movie locations of gambling-themed regional and Hollywood movies. The casino hotels provide luxe production backdrops.

 

Many films come to mind, including Casino Tycoon (1992), starring Andy Lau, and Look For A Star (2009), starring Shu Qi.

 

The blockbuster series of From Vegas To Macau I, II and III takes viewers through the winding alleyways and cobblestone streets of Macau.

 

The last movie in this trilogy, with its stellar cast including Andy Lau and Chow Yun Fat, has an outdoor poolside wedding scene that was set against the massive figure-eight Ferris wheel of Studio City that opened at the end of 2015. Other scenes featured Macau streets, cha chaan teng (local teahouses), dai pai dong (pushcart dining) and antique shops.

 

According to the Macao Cultural Affairs Bureau, "over the last few years, Macau annually receives an average of more than 120 applications from foreign production companies to shoot in Macau, with production types of films, TV dramas, documentaries, commercials, trailers and music videos".

 

Macau has served as an exotic Oriental backdrop with plots that involve flashy casinos as seen in Now You See Me 2 (2016), including scenes shot on Coloane and the stunning evening pool top shot in Sands Macao.

 

The minimalist interiors for their card-tossing wizardry was shot entirely in the Macao Science Centre - designed by I.M. Pei, the Chinese architect behind the Louvre's pyramids. The Macao Science Centre is a futuristic architectural masterpiece right on the Macao Peninsula's harbour front and is home to the world's highest-resolution 3D planetarium in the Guinness book of records.

 

Distinct parts of 2016 action film Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan, Fan Bingbing and Johnny Knoxville, were shot in Macau, including the stunning skylight atrium of the MGM hotel (www.mgm.mo/en).

 

Recent Hong Kong film Cook Up A Storm (2017), starring Nicholas Tse as a chef alongside actual Macau-based Michelin-starred chefs, was a collaborative effort with the then newly opened cinema-themed Studio City in 2015, shot largely in-house.

 

Chinese sports drama Unbeatables (2013), with plenty of boxing training scenes, was also shot in Macau featuring endurance running scenes along Nam Van Lake, St Lazarus district and Hac Sa Beach on Coloane.

 

FOCUS ON LOCAL TALENT

 

Shining a light on Macao's film history, the second International Film Festival Awards Macau aims to raise the bar and put Macau on the cinematic map. Once just a backdrop for movies, it has long-term goals to become the Hollywood of the Far East.

 

A film centre, Cinematheque Passion, opened in 2016 in the St Lazarus district, screening a range of independent art films from around the world, as well as highlighting local directors and Macau shorts.

 

"There has been a big jump in our movie/film culture in these past 10 years. The Government Cultural Institute has set up a creative industry office that supports the development of films with a feature films subsidy scheme,'' says Mr Timothy Fan, Cinematheque Passion's head of programming and marketing.

 

"At the same time, more young Macau film-makers who graduated from film schools abroad are back in Macau, including Portuguese film-makers who chose to stay in Macau.

 

"This has helped Macau with a steady collection of independent productions each year. Even though most of the projects are short in length, it is encouraging that many more feature film projects are in the works," he notes.

 

Last year, the International Film Festival Awards Macau showcased local talent and films that explore the pre-handover era before Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. The line-up included favourites such as The Bicycle Man, A Macao Diary (1997) by Ivo Ferreira and Antonio Pedro.

 

Other independent shorts include Wallace Chan's Fonting The City (2014), which documents local designers searching for the "forgotten typefaces" that decorate buildings in the San Ma Lou area in Macau, highlighting the aesthetics in urban typefaces over the decades.

 

While Macau is not known for its contribution to the film world, it is captured in movies through the decades with its old-school places still filled with nostalgic charm, resisting the urban development and modernisation at the turn of the 21st century.

 

• Juliana Loh is a Singaporean freelance lifestyle writer based in Macau.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.