Scarfies Review

“Scarfies” is local slang for students at Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand, the southernmost University in the world. Emma (Willa O’Neill) is one such, in her first term. She moves into an abandoned house – no landlord and no rent, though oddly enough the electricity still works. Also living there are Scott (Neill Rea), Nicole (Ashleigh Seagar), Alex (Taika Cohen) and Graham (Charlie Bleakley). One day, they find their way into the basement and discover that it’s full of marijuana. They sell the harvest and begin to spend the money. But then the real owner of the crop, Kevin (Jon Brazier), comes back to the house…

Shot on a low budget, mostly on real Dunedin locations, Scarfies is the work of brothers Duncan and Robert Sarkies. They both wrote the script (Duncan had himself been a scarfie in his time) and Robert directed the film. Superficially similar to Shallow Grave, Scarfies is a very promising first feature, with directorial resourcefulness overcoming some weaknesses in the script. In many ways this is a film that benefits from its low budget: Dunedin is a cold place, and Robert Sarkies and DP Stephen Downes emphasise this by giving many scenes a blue tone. In the exterior scenes, you can see the actors’ breath cloud in the air. For most of the film, except when they are in bed, the cast are wrapped up very warmly: the house might have electricity, but it doesn’t have heating. When so many films are set in a generic Anytown, Scarfies is set in an identifiable place. The film gives quite a sense of how, I’d imagine, it would be like to live there (amongst other things, it’s cold and hilly, but the views look good), without becoming too much like a touristic travelogue. Many of the cast are locals, as are the bands which play on the soundtrack. The six lead actors all give decent performances, within the limits of their roles, with Jon Brazier giving a few shadings to a potentially one-dimensional villain role. Some nicely judged black humour plays off some occasionally unpleasant violence. This was a first film for most of the leads, though O’Neill and Seagar had both done stints on the New Zealand TV medical soap Shortland Street.

On the minus side, the script isn’t as polished as it might be. The characterisation is flat, with some characters (Scott and Alex in particular) often hard to distinguish. It’s a telling sign that something is wrong when the production notes tell you more about the characters than ever comes across on screen. Showing rather than telling is good, but we’re not always shown things well enough. There are the occasional touches that one hopes Sarkies will grow out of, such as the Hallelujah Chorus playing when the scarfies discover the marijuana. The drug-selling sequence is rather perfunctorily dealt with: it’s vital to the plot, but you sense the makers’ interest lies elsewhere. It’s up to you whether you buy the scarfies preferring to watch the rugby on TV rather than deal with the imprisoned Kevin. This is a film relying on its characters being young, immature and foolish – would it work if those characters weren’t students? (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Magna Pacific’s DVD is unusual for an independent-label release of an Australian or New Zealander film by being region-coded – 4 only. The DVD has an anamorphic transfer at a ratio of 16:9 (not 1.85:1 as it says on the box). Compositionally, this seems about right, so I suspect this film was intended for a cinema ratio of 1.75:1. The transfer is a little soft and has a few black and white specks here and there, but is very acceptable. It’s certainly grainy in parts, but that’s all part of the film’s look. Shadow detail is fine, with many scenes taking place in a darkened basement. It’s not the most colourful of films, but intentionally so.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Dialogue is clearly recorded, though surrounds are mostly used for the music and the occasional effect such as a dog barking. The subwoofer is barely called upon throughout the film. There are no subtitles, which is regrettable news for the hard of hearing or non-native speakers of English who may struggle with some strong Kiwi accents. There are twenty chapter stops.

The main extra is an audio commentary by the Sarkies brothers. Robert begins endearingly by saying that he’d always dreamed of introducing his own film, and here he is. The two brothers have an obvious rapport, and the result is an entertaining commentary that tells us how such a low-budget film was put together. Even shots like the blossom falling at the end were done for real (with a little offscreen assistance) – no CGIs here. The Dunedin authorities were extremely accommodating, even turning the city’s lights off on cue for one scene! You can only access the commentary by means of your AUDIO button while the film is running: there’s no access via the menu.

The theatrical trailer runs 2:12, in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. It’s well put together, making the film look more like a suspense thriller than it actually is. The trailer contains a couple of shots not in the completed film. The Sarkies brothers refer during the commentary to some deleted scenes, so it’s unfortunate that this DVD edition doesn’t include any. It does have a short (6:50) making-of featurette, which has more balanced towards interviews than film extracts than is usual, but is still little more than a promotional item. The soundtrack for this is strangely mixed: when played in Dolby Digital 2.0, the music comes out of the right speaker, dialogue and other sound from the left. There are separate interviews, clearly shot at the same session, with Willa O’Neill, Charlie Bleakley, Ashleigh Seagar and Duncan Sarkies…though “soundbites” would be more accurate, as these last less than a minute each. Ten pages of production notes (which only take us up to pre-production) and biographies of all the leading cast except Bleakley and Brazier for some reason, plus the Sarkies brothers, complete the extras. To navigate through the biographies (all obviously lifted from production notes and not including filmographies), you have to select MORE on each page: the default will take you back to the biographies menu.

Scarfies picked up some attention in its native country and internationally at festivals, and has attracted a small cult following as a result. It has yet to have a British release either in the cinema or on video or DVD. I won’t pretend it’s a hidden masterpiece as it isn’t: what it is however is a very promising film which makes me curious as to what the Sarkies brothers will do with a bigger budget and a more polished script. Magna Pacific’s DVD is certainly very decent, but some thought in certain areas, notably the extras and the navigation, would have lifted it up a few more notches.

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