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The Running Man


The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)

Zacharias Kunuk, Canada, 2001 (2002 theatrical release)

Rating: 4.0



Posted: September 9, 2002

By Laurence Station

People have to get along if they want to survive. That's the ultimate message of director Zacharias Kunuk's Fast Runner, a powerful film that translates an ancient myth of the Inuit tribes of northern Canada -- one handed down via oral tradition for generations -- to the big screen. Technical issues -- involving the grainy digital-video-to-film transfer process -- aside, Fast Runner (the first film entirely shot in the Inuktitut language) is an absorbing, unpretentiously told micro-epic, universal in scope, regarding matters of family, loyalty, betrayal and pride.

Set at the beginning of the first millennium, Fast Runner tells the tale of how Evil, in the form of a wandering shaman, arrives one night and disrupts the harmony of a close-knit community of nomadic Inuit. People who have to rely on the skills of all to survive -- from the men who hunt to the women who clean and prepare the meals -- begin to turn on one another, passing judgment on a less competent hunter's ability and imposing a disruptive hierarchy of acceptance on a culture that requires absolute social equality for its long-term subsistence.

Twenty years later, two brothers (Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner) grow to manhood and set out to challenge the evil that has beset their people. Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) wins the favor of the fair Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), upsetting Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the arrogant, yet cowardly son of the tribal leader to whom she was betrothed. Complicating matters further is Oki's lascivious sister Puja (an excellent Lucy Tulugarjuk), who accompanies Atanarjuat on a hunting trip in place of the pregnant Atuat, and winds up seducing the Fast Runner and becoming his second wife. Puja, unsurprisingly, upsets the stability of the two brothers' camp, angering the other wives and fleeing back to her family after being rightfully chastised by Atanarjuat. Using his sister's humiliation as a justification for revenge, Oki attacks the brothers while they sleep, killing Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk) but missing Atanarjuat, who, completely naked, miraculously escapes across the thawing spring ice. The actions Atanarjuat takes upon his eventual return to the tribe provide Fast Runner's most telling lesson regarding vengeance and the need to rise above the rage within in order to defeat the malicious spirit plaguing the entire tribe.

The refreshing aspect of Kunuk's film is in the way it downplays the epic nature of its tale: Fast Runner doesn't attempt to make its story any grander than it needs to be. The two brothers aren't larger than life myths sprung to life, but ordinary hunters attempting to provide for themselves and their families in a forbidding and hostile world. The humility and intimacy of the Igloolik community, set against the vast and imposing landscapes of the Canadian Arctic, provides the film with its greatest strength, reinforcing the message of how the pride of one can lead to the ruin of all.

Fast Runner's biggest drawback, while probably unavoidable given budgetary constraints and the harsh environment in which the production was shot, is the use of more portable but less-crisp digital betacams in favor of actual 35mm cameras (to which the footage was later transferred). The look is simply too granular, and one gets the sense that those washed-out vistas in the distance would have looked a lot more stunning had higher resolution images been taken. When someone like George Lucas uses digital video to make his latest Star Wars film, the process works because it's a mostly computed-generated affair. Fast Runner, shot entirely on location with no special effects, has no fancy graphical binary algorithms to hide behind, and thus can only look as good as the equipment on which it was shot.

Despite such technical limitations, Fast Runner is a compelling film that, despite its near three hour running time, never fails to engage the viewer. For four millennia the Inuit have orally passed their legends, wisdom and values down through subsequent generations. When Fast Runner's opening storyteller says "I can only sing this song to someone who understands it," the rest of the world, thanks to Kunuk and his stellar cast and crew, finally has an opportunity to appreciate this unique and fascinating culture.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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