THE FAST RUNNER
Review by Ed Nguyen
Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Pakak Innuksuk, Lucy
Director: Zacharias Kunuk
Audio: Inuktitut 5.1
Video: Digital color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri-Star
Length: 161 minutes
Release Date: February 11, 2003
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.