The Last Saint
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 17th August 2014
We’re used to seeing Antipodean soap stars making it big as Hollywood actors, or branching out into local indie films – but you might not expect to see a Shortland Streeter, beloved since he debuted as paramedic Sam Aleni in those heady first season days of 1992, moving behind the camera to direct a brutal, drug-laced crime story set in Auckland’s Polynesian gangland.
Rene Naufahu has written and directed a searing local thriller which dunks us into a world not before shown on NZ screens: the turf war between Samoan and Tongan drug dealers and the realities of P-addiction that we (hopefully) only read about in the news. Five years in the making, this self-described “rebel” film adopted the famous Kiwi Number 8 wire approach, self-funding and ploughing on without industry support, but what makes The Last Saint so special is not its self-sufficiency but its slick, novel and excitingly-executed story.
Minka (a terrific Beulah Koale in his first leading role) is a good lad, dedicated to keeping his mum off the methamphetamine and keeping his head down through life. When he is taken under the paternal wing of Joe (another ex-Shorty star, Calvin Tuteao), Minka’s stance against sex, drugs and violence is sorely tested as he is introduced to the seedy night-life of strip clubs, brothels and bars.
The film’s myriad joys include sterling performances from Joseph Naufahu as an hilarious dealer with his own P-issues and a penchant for head-clanging techno music, and (hoorah!) a couple of well-acted female roles for Minka’s mum (Joy Vaele) and Sophia Huybens as the feisty Zoe, who delivers dry lines with an exact measurement of post-teen cynicism. Reminiscent in style and content of the superlative Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, The Last Saint may be male-centric but at least some of the women get to do more than dance around a pole. There are also familiar faces from TV who are allowed to work against type (you’ll take that Energy Spot advice a lot more seriously from now on).
As a backdrop, Auckland’s central city has never looked more grown-up nor more beautiful – his first time at the photographic reins of a feature film amply demonstrates cinematographer Grant McKinnon’s tireless work on over 15 years of local productions. A scene around the fountain in Albert Park is as captivating for the atmospheric lens flares as for its well-written dialogue, and even the clichéd environment of the “titty bar” exhibits camerawork that excites you about the dramatic action rather than the eye-candy.
The Animal Kingdom comparison also extends to Naufahu’s excellent set-list of a soundtrack. Local audiences will delight as oldies and goodies from bygone years are spun on Minka’s turntable, with a touching rendition of the Holidaymakers’ hit “Sweet Lovers” in one of the film’s momentarily optimistic moments, and the irony of a brutal beating delivered to the soothing sounds of Ardijah.
While the tropes of an innocent Pasifika boy fighting dark forces may not seem an entirely original premise, the urban setting and eye-popping insights into the less honourable side of Polynesian pride does feel fresh, and although this crime drama follows a well-trodden narrative path, it does so with panache and several unexpected belly laughs.
Among The Last Saint’s many strengths are its energy, its unrelenting, in-your-face (and eardrums) brutality and its endearing central performances. This is impressive genre fare, well-executed and intoxicating.