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THE FAST RUNNER

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Pakak Innuksuk, Lucy Tulugarjuk
Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Audio: Inuktitut 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Digital color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri-Star
Features: Trailers
Length: 161 minutes
Release Date: February 11, 2003

"We never knew what he was or why it happened.  Evil came to us like Death.  It just happened and we had to live with it."

Film ***

There is one very simple reason - an unrelentingly harsh climate - that precludes most movies from ever being shot in the remote frozen corners of the world.  Standard movie equipment simply cannot endure such extreme conditions and invariably freeze or malfunction.  However, director Zacharias Kunuk was able to find a solution to this dilemma.  Using the latest digital Betacam video technology, Kunuk was able to shot a whole film entirely on location in the extreme sub-Arctic regions.  The resulting movie, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner, 2001), recreated an epic legend of the Inuit tradition and, upon its release, was hailed as one of the most unique films in recent memory.

Set in a timeless wilderness of ice and snow, The Fast Runner follows a small band of communal Inuit natives as they struggle to survive and to maintain their unity within this harsh realm.  The film opens on a sad prologue as the tribal chieftain mysteriously dies in the presence of a stranger.  One tribal member, Sauri, is anointed as the new chieftain over the protests of Tulimaq, another tribal member, but to no avail.  Tulimaq believes that Sauri is somehow implicated with the stranger in the apparent murder of the old chieftain.  There is no definite proof, so in joint protest, the brother of the old chieftain's wife subsequently departs the tribe for the wilderness.

Tulimaq is soon thereafter plagued with poor fortune.  His wife and children frequently go hungry, and he is forced to scavenge among the leftovers and scraps of the other hunters.  A prevailing sense that the entire tribe has somehow been cursed by a great Evil lingers heavily upon the community's thoughts.  The Fast Runner, then, chronicles the epic struggle through which that Evil is eventually isolated and defeated.

Years after the old chieftain's death, Tulimaq has faded from the narrative, which now focuses on his two grown sons, Amaqjuat (Pakak Innuksuk) and Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq).  Amaqjuat is the stronger and elder of the two brothers, although Atanarjuat has a special gift - he is extremely fleet-footed, fast enough even to chase down a dog-team.  His swiftness may someday save his life.

Sauri still remains the chieftain.  His ill-tempered son, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), is next in line to become the new leader upon his father's death.  He is betrothed to Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who openly prefers the kindlier Atanarjuat.  The ensuing friction which inevitably arises between Oki and Atanarjuat results in a ritualized combat before their tribal elders, with the prize being Atuat's hand in marriage.

Atanarjuat wins this fight, and the two men apparently settle their differences.  After his subsequent marriage to Atuat, Atanarjuat will even accept Oki's conniving sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) as a second wife.  Yet this second marriage proves to be a grave mistake.  Puja's arrival into Atanarjuat's family unit sets into motion a new tragic arc of the film that begins with murder before leading to dissention within the tribe.  In this sense, Puja is an Intuit Lady MacBeth, discreetly and selfishly orchestrating events to their fateful conclusions.  Although her brother Oki is portrayed as a villain, he is ultimately more of a tragic character, manipulated by influences beyond his control.

The Fast Runner, despite its epic narrative, is filmed in a natural and intimate style.  Events are photographed in a muted manner, as though to de-emphasize the sweeping scale of the story and to normalize these events as seemingly ordinary occurrences.  The film shows us scenes of children at play and adults traveling or hunting with their dog-teams for seals and fish.  We see the communal construction of igloos and the cleansing of animal pelts or flesh.  The Fast Runner is as much a documentary-like look at a lifestyle long gone as it is an epic tale of murder, avarice, and ultimate redemption.

Obviously, none of the actors in the film are true professionals.  They are sometimes awkward and perhaps a little self-conscious, but their unhindered, natural performances add an aura of authenticity to the story.  As a result, The Fast Runner often feels more like a modern documentary than a fictional re-enactment of an ancient Intuit legend.

These very strengths in The Fast Runner, oddly enough, lead to an unavoidable flaw with the film.  This epic presents such an alien world, with a people and culture so beyond the experience and scope of most audiences, that following the storyline may at times be difficult.  The names are certainly hard to remember, a situation further complicated because the characters are rarely referred to by name.  With everyone bundled up against the harsh climate in heavy, protective gear, identifying these individual characters can be challenging.  Even unclothed, most of the characters look alike!

Focused concentration is therefore absolutely essential while watching The Fast Runner to fully appreciate this unique film.  Less attentive audiences will surely become lost very quickly in the narrative.  As such, The Fast Runner ultimately plays better at home, where pauses and rewinds can be performed, than in the movie theaters.  The film unfolds in a slow and deliberate manner, but for viewers eager for a different or new cinematic experience, The Fast Runner will immerse them to a truly fascinating and unique world.

Video ****

The Fast Runner certainly looks unusual.  Shot on digital video (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), the movie's appearance is much sharper than ordinary videotape yet entirely unlike the soft, gentle colors of typical film stock.  Of course, since The Fast Runner was shot entirely on location in an extremely unforgiving environment, the decision to use sturdier digital video instead of more fragile celluloid film stock is understandable.

Digital video lacks the intimacy and cinematic warmth of regular celluloid.  There is a sense of watching a home video which dilutes the film's dramatic and epic impact.  That is unfortunate, as the story is fairly compelling.  If viewers can acclimate themselves quickly enough to the look of The Fast Runner, they will be able to appreciate the film much better. 

Honestly, though I do not feel that digital video will ever become a truly viable alternative to celluloid stock, as far as theatrical releases are concerned, the picture quality in The Fast Runner is most exemplary.  Images are crystal-clear and very sharp.  Colors are bold if a little harsh-appearing (and occasionally muddy during the darkest scenes).  There are no grossly perceivable digital artifacts.  Skin tones are realistic, and the picture is free from mars or scratches.

Audio ***

This is a particularly difficult film to follow, as the audio is entirely in Inuktitut 5.1, which bears no common link in syntax or grammar to any European-based languages.  As a consequence, the English subtitles, which are burned onto the video image, are absolutely essential.  Unfortunately, the yellow text is occasionally hard to read when superimposed over the vastly white landscapes of the film.  Again, pauses and rewinds are useful here.

The Fast Runner is not particularly heavy on sound effects.  For the most part, the audio is comprised of dialogue or native songs and chants.  The musical score is almost non-existent but effective in its native authenticity when it does appear.  The ambience of the wide-open spaces is also well-achieved in this audio mix.

Features *

How typical - inferior mainstream films regularly receive the royal treatment in the extras department, while truly noteworthy films such as The Fast Runner are essentially ignored.  On this disc, bonus features are almost entirely absent.  Yes, at 161 minutes, this is a long film, so disc space is limited, but there are only three trailers and nothing else - Lagaan (a Bollywood film about the game of cricket), Lawrence of Arabia, and Limbo, a film by maverick filmmaker John Sayles.

As a weak consolation, the film's end credits do feature some behind-the-scenes footage, but being part of the actual movie, this footage does not really constitute a bonus feature.

Summary:

The silent era had Nanook of the North, and now the digital era of filmmaking has the noteworthy The Fast Runner.  Once viewers get past the unusual appearance of The Fast Runner, they will find a compelling and involving tale of love, betrayal, and vengeance.

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