- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

Maybe being Canadian would help one get in a proper frame of mind for the mock-primitive peculiarities of "The Fast Runner," aka "Atanarjuat."

This borderline epic was shot in the Baffin Island region by an Inuit collective equipped with digital cameras and supposedly drawing on fables that date to the first millennium. I don't think the tribal enmities depicted in "The Fast Runner" are meant to reach back that far maybe a couple of centuries at most. However, it's difficult to deny that jealousies, misunderstandings, love matches, murder, revenge and acts of mercy tend to repeat themselves in human populations.

Anyway, the Canadian film industry was so proud of the movie that the annual Genie Awards were dominated by "The Fast Runner" a year ago. I suppose we might have had a rough equivalent if "Dances With Wolves" had been made not by Kevin Costner, but by a Lakota collective subsidized by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Thanks to "Runner," there's a fairly reliable measure for comparing the trade-offs in ethnic solidarity and entertainment value.

Narrative interest seemed a little difficult to sustain in "Runner" for several reasons. Some, like the eyestrain that ensues when one is trying to read white subtitles against snowy landscapes, might be corrected with a minor technical adjustment. Others, such as the confusion that results when one is trying to differentiate one seemingly pivotal character from another, could be remedied only by different casting and an incisive screenplay.

"Runner" is permitted to sprawl both scenically and dramatically while tracking the tribulations of its nominal hero, Atanarjuat. The character escapes the wrath of a homicidal rival named Oki, inflamed by the fact that a tribal elder his father, Sauri has permitted a conjugal match that awards Atanarjuat a bride named Atuat. That's her preference, but Oki doesn't run out of malice before murdering Atanarjuat's older brother, Amaqjuaq, and his own father.

Atanarjuat escapes by outrunning Oki and his henchmen. He has been napping in the nude when the killers strike, stabbing into the hide of a tent after collapsing it. A naked prey, Atanarjuat manages to survive a marathon flight across the tundra and spring ice floes. He is rescued from hypothermia by kindly old Qulitalik, who happens to be Oki's uncle but doesn't cotton to crimes or threats. Qulitalik cleverly hides the fugitive under a bed of seaweed. There he remains undetected, even though Oki uses the seaweed as a urinal when he turns up trying to retrieve the cold trail of Atanarjuat.

When summarizing this plot without a handy set of credits, it's tempting to refer to all the male characters as "what's his name." The women are somewhat easier to get straight. Atuat, for example, has a crooked grin and a squinty eye, rather like Popeye and his father.

There's a grandmother, who is an invaluable source of platitudes. Several episodes are enlivened or afflicted by Lucy Tulugarjuk as a naughty girl named Puja. She gleefully seduces the hero while they're off on a caribou hunt. Then she goes hysteric when he tries to take advantage back in the home tent while brother, wife, grandmother and several others are snoozing nearby. The movie has a fairly sunny disposition when Puja is in the mood. When she's feeling sorry for herself, the whimpering seems interminable.

I certainly would have voted for Miss Tulugarjuk as the Northwest Territories' sex star of tomorrow.

The earthy humor of the tribes folk is sometimes diverting. It might be fun to contrive a comedy around a group of professional filmmakers, specialists in teen-age sex farce, who get stranded with an Inuit tribe on a time-traveling pretext. Could be an eye-opener for the moderns.

It appears so difficult for director Zacharias Kunuk to stage anything beyond rudimentary encounters in "The Fast Runner" that you would prefer to hear someone yell "cut" and watch the company head for the shelter of tents, where they could wipe runny noses at leisure and get a warm meal under their belts. I suspect a one-hour "Making of 'Atanarjuat'" would provide much more human interest than nearly three hours of "Atanarjuat" itself.


TITLE: "The Fast Runner" (aka "Atanarjuat")

RATING: No MPAA rating. (Adult subject matter, with interludes of graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity; fleeting nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Zacharias Kunuk. In Inuit with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 167 minutes


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