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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 16.22%
Average: 21.62%
Pretty Bad: 5.41%
Total Crap: 5.41%

3 reviews, 19 user ratings

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Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), The
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by Collin Souter

"A challenging and stunning journey with one of the best chase scenes ever"
4 stars

You have to walk into “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” with the expectation of being completely taken away from the world as you now know it. The Canadian Inuit film takes us to the farthest reaches of the Canadian Far North where there exists nothing but snow, tundra and the ocean. It may very well be the coldest movie of all time. There exists no technology, no modes of transportation other than sleds powered by dogs and no connection with our world. The story takes place many centuries ago, one that will take you to a real place on earth that, most likely, you will never ever visit.

The movie spans decades and takes nearly 3 hours to tell its story. The running time has been justified by its almost Shakespearean storyline and time spent delving into the Inuit culture. These people’s lives revolve around hunting and gathering, around arranged marriages and deep spirituality. Sometimes, they settle their differences with a sort of Fight Club, where the two foes have equal opportunities to strike their opponent. Apparently, one blow to the face can knock a guy out in this climate. I’ll take their word for it.

The brave soul to venture into this world with camera in hand is first-time filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, who won the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. He and his cameraman Norman Cohn shot “Fast Runner” using digital video, but it still manages to encompass the sweeping majesty of a David Lean film. Sets consist of little more than igloos. The land often bleeds into the sky giving us no horizons. Often, the movie has the viewer gaping at the events on screen and wondering, “How did they keep from going insane on the set of this movie?”* “Fast Runner” should gain the curiosity of movie buffs as to what Kunuk’s next movie will be. I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be the only movie ever made about the Inuit culture.

The title refers to one of the main characters, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) who has been known to outrun a sled dog or two. He and his brother, Amaqjuaq (Pakkak Innukshuk) have a nemesis of sorts in Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the son of a chief. Oki has a desire for Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who married Atanarjuat. Oki’s lazy and immoral sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) also tries her best to seduce both Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq, which causes immense anguish and disorder in the tribe.

Paul Apak Angilirq, the late screenwriter and co-producer of “Fast Runner,” sets up the story with an evil shaman putting a curse on the tribe. Here, 20 years later, we see the results of the curse. As the jealousy and deceit reach an apex among those involved, Oki and his two cohorts attempt to kill Atanarjuat and Amaqjuaq. Atanarjuat gets away and, of course, runs away in what has to be one of the most audacious and memorable chase scenes ever filmed.

Wearing absolutely nothing, actor Natar Ungalaaq races across the frozen landscape, which alternates between snow and icy water. Atanarjuat’s feet start to scrape and bleed as he runs for his life, with Oki and his men unable to keep up. The chase goes on for an extended amount of time without any photography tricks or anything that would lead us to suspect that Ungalaaq didn’t run buck-naked through the snow-capped tundra of Far North Canada. This sort of dedication to craft and art seems almost unheard-of in Hollywood. Ungalaaq certainly gets my vote for Most Courageous Performance of the year. From this point on in the story, Atanarjuat must try and do everything he can to set things right in his tribe even as Oki and his men continue to try and hunt him down.

I have to be honest and say that at times I felt confused by some of the characters and their relations. Many of the characters in “Fast Runner” look alike and many of them get addressed as “husband” or “mother.” This is their title in life and it takes a while to catch on to that (it did for me, anyway). You may feel a bit lost in the first half-hour or so, but if you stay with it and piece it together, the effort will be well worth it.

While the story does become more and more involving and interesting, it should be noted that “Fast Runner” also does a beautiful job of depicting the lives and customs of the Inuit. We often see the characters gutting the meat of their prey, most of which we never see actually get killed, which is probably just as well, since the folks at Peta will already have enough to gripe about with the somewhat harsh treatment of the sled dogs. We see characters miles and miles away from one another calling to one another through the use of fire and rituals. We also see the construction of an igloo, which we see later being used as a room for social engagements. Here, we learn some of the Inuit songs.

Adventurous filmgoers should embark on this stunning journey on the big screen while they still can, though I imagine some people will have a hard time sitting through “Fast Runner,” since it builds steadily and doesn’t always explain itself very clearly. With its 3-hour running time, director Kunuk allows us to get into the hearts and minds of the characters as well as get a feel for their environment. As a result, one walks out of the film with the rare feeling of truly being swept away and taken somewhere. Those brave enough to take the journey and stick with it will probably have it on their minds long after the credits.

(SPOILERS WARNING) (*--If you want to know how everyone survived the arduous process of making this film, you won’t have to wait for the DVD to find out. Stick with this movie to the very end. You’ll see how far a sense of humor can go.)

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originally posted: 06/30/02 16:40:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/21/17 MANNY Had to watch and write a review about this movie For Indigenous class. WORST MOVIE EVER 1 stars
11/16/06 David Some slow sections, but still a tremendous film 5 stars
5/31/06 Clara Amazing! One of a kind, a must see. 5 stars
12/30/05 Xiu Lan I loved it!!! 5 stars
8/12/05 ALDO um, boring. I left the theater. I never leave the theater. 2 stars
7/25/04 Phil M. Aficionado You really can't rate this film, and it is a long slog but beautifully made. 3 stars
7/07/03 y2mckay Would have been better suited as a documentary - grinds along at the speed of an ice floe 2 stars
4/06/03 Gertrude cultural tour de force-engrossing 5 stars
3/08/03 Mary Haling Excellent, worth seeing twice, memorable women 5 stars
2/02/03 Rob Good film, but can be an endurance test. Overhyped as first inuit movie 3 stars
12/18/02 Barbara F Wedlake If the reviewer thinks the Inuit live "with no technology" then this film has failed! 5 stars
12/12/02 Lincoln Parrett amazing photography and look at Inuit culture 5 stars
12/02/02 ezra i felt so priveledged to have seen this film on the big screen in my mother's land , Alaska 5 stars
10/20/02 Beavis This movie sucks all balls and let me tell you, there's a 2 minute scene of flapping balls 1 stars
9/14/02 m. clare ( can we get this in video, is it showing in Tennessee?i want my daughter to see it. 5 stars
9/04/02 Karen Amazing, in detail and vision 5 stars
8/17/02 Ron This film haunts you for days after seeing it and that sure as hell doesn't happen often. 5 stars
6/04/02 Glen Incredible film, best of 2002 5 stars
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  07-Jun-2002 (R)
  DVD: 11-Feb-2003



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