In the relatively dauntless existence of a professional film reviewer, there are few situations as daunting as attending an intimate screening of a film with the filmmaker present, and interested in your opinion of the work.
Such was the case last Friday evening, when I accepted an invitation to a private screening of The Last Saint, an upcoming film from Rene Naufahu, a prolific writer/director/actor still probably best known by the general public as Sam from Shortland Street back in the day (and later this year, when he returns to the show).
The film is 95 per cent finished and currently being considered for post-production funding by the New Zealand Film Commission. The Last Saint's prior struggles to gain public funding have been previously addressed, and with the finished product almost over the line, I thought it was time to start talking about the movie itself.
Which is really, really good.
This became apparent to me early on in the viewing experience and it alleviated my nervousness about having to face the filmmakers when the film finished, by which point I was very excited about what The Last Saint has to offer a Kiwi filmgoing audience.
Beulah Koale (from the acclaimed short Manurewa) plays central Auckland teenager Minka, who is struggling to take care of his P-addict mum (Joy Vaele). This leads Minka to ask for help from his estranged father Joe (Calvin Tuteao - Top of the Lake), who introduces Minka to Auckland's seedy criminal underworld.
As Minka starts to navigate the perils of working for psychotic P-dealer Pinball (Joe Naufahu, positively leaping off the screen), he also forms a growing bond with the sarcastic Zoey (Sophia Huybens), who lives next door with her father.
Koale is fantastic here, ably carrying the film on his shoulders - Minka's uneasy reunion with his father generates considerable dramatic tension, and the relationship between Minka and Zoey forms a solid emotional grounding for the story.
The film is impressively slick - no corners have been identifiably cut, and creative use has been made of some of the grimier central Auckland locations. Plus the selection of classic Kiwi tunes that pepper the soundtrack go a long way to creating an identifiable tone.
But what really struck me about The Last Saint, what got me excited above all its other elements, was how it was able to portray a New Zealand criminal underworld with some degree of authenticity.
Outside of Once Were Warriors (which was more concerned with domestic criminality), I am struggling to think of any New Zealand movie which has pulled this off. We do a lot of things well in New Zealand cinema, but bad guys, gangsters and drug dealers are not on the list.
If we look at the top 50 Kiwi films as indicated by a recent poll, the only movie that possibly qualifies as having presented a remotely convincing criminal underworld is maybe 1985's Came A Hot Friday, and that was a period comedy. As charming as Stickmen remains, the Wellington gangsters on display in the movie are about as threatening as Gerry Austin from Goodbye Pork Pie.
My point is, it is very difficult to present organised Kiwi criminality with any kind of cinematic authenticity, and most local filmmakers don't even try.
Naufahu and his collaborators deserve to be celebrated for how they pull this off in The Last Saint. The drug dealing world on display here feels uniquely Kiwi - it never seems like they're trying to emulate bad guys from overseas movies, and still a sense of palpable dread is felt.
I'm unqualified to judge to what degree the world we see in The Last Saint emulates the actual New Zealand criminal underworld, but it certainly feels authentic, and achieves more in this arena than any other New Zealand film I can think of.
A variety of genuinely threatening figures come into the story, none more so than Pinball, who all but steals the movie. Played with energetic ferocity by Joe Naufahu (Rene's brother), Pinball is a muscle-bound drug lord obsessed with techno music and words that begin with 'P'.
He's just the kind of larger-than-life scumbag that makes movies like this pop, and he rules.
Pinball has the potential to be a Kiwi cinematic icon, and The Last Saint is a modern Kiwi classic in the making.
It's the best movie to delve into Auckland's variety of Pacific subcultures since the first Sione outing, and is a strong argument for further exploration of the darker side of this vibrant, cinematically-friendly world. (The Tattooist doesn't count.)
The film is currently out to distributors, but the makers are also considering self-distribution. Here's hoping it reaches the widest audience possible - it's one of the most impressive crime dramas ever made in this country, and manages to generate a huge amount of pathos while satisfying a number of commercially-friendly genre requirements.
The Last Saint is further evidence that uniquely New Zealand stories can be very effectively told within a genre context. Cultural reasonance comes through much more easily when it isn't the focus of the film.
The Last Saint is exactly the kind of film we should be funding.
* Are you excited for The Last Saint? Which Kiwi films do you think have portrayed a criminal underworld effectively? Comment below!