"The Fast Runner" is a film shot entirely on location and using the Inuktittut language that focuses on the struggle for survival of one small band of Inuits living in the harsh Arctic wilderness. And if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then I’m afraid you’re missing out on not only one of the more unique films as of late but also one of the very best.
The movie opens on the seemingly tranquil scene of a small Inuit tribe sharing the warmth of a communal igloo. But evil is afoot and the tribe’s chief is murdered while his own people stand aside and do nothing to stop the heinous act.
Fast forward a score of years and the murderer is now the tribal chief. His own children have obviously inherited his evil streak but the tribe seems to be getting on in a relatively peaceful fashion.
The bulk of the film centers on the character of Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), a seemingly unremarkable man who is best known for his unmatched speed at running. Along with his older brother, Amaqjuaq (Pakak Innuksuk), he tries to live his simple life as best he can but his love for Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu) leads him into conflict with the chief’s son, Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), to whom she has been promised in marriage. Further complicating matters is the chief’s spoiled and selfish daughter, Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk), who soon becomes Atanarjuat’s second wife.
Things come to a head when Puja seduces Amaqjuaq. While Atanarjuat eventually forgives his brother he knows that Puja is unredeemable and she’s sent packing back to her family. Her brother Oki seizes upon this affront as his chance to get rid of Atanarjuat and gain Atuat for himself. What ensues is a battle not just between two rivals but one for the very soul of the tribe itself.
Based on a traditional Inuit legend, "The Fast Runner" is full of the mythical archetypes that all cultures share in common. While the language and setting are certainly exotic there’s nothing in the actions of these characters that is foreign or unrecognizable. The main theme of the story is man’s neverending battle against evil — both within himself and in the world at large.
What really makes "The Fast Runner" such an effective film is the stellar effort of its cast and crew. None of these actors could have much experience yet each and every one of them turns in a realistic, nuanced performance that even some top-tier Hollywood talent would be hard pressed to match. The characters on screen are all people that we as viewers can recognize and relate to irregardless of their outwardly foreign appearance. Everyone has come across a blindly ambitious Oki or Puja in their lives and the actors have seized upon this commonality as the anchor for their performances.
The late writer Paul Apak Angilirq and director Zacharias Kunuk also deserve much credit for making this project such a success. Transforming this myth into a story with real relevance for modern audiences couldn’t have been an easy task but Angilirq’s screenplay shows both remarkable insight and restraint in keeping the film firmly on track without ever once allowing the story to veer off into the saccharine sentimentality or needless travelogue-like side stories that have doomed so many such period pieces.
And the director certainly deserves kudos for making this technically difficult film while at the same time keeping it realistic. No corners were cut in presenting this look at traditional Inuit life. But what is most remarkable is the fact that the very things that one would expect a director to focus and linger on are instead presented here as mere background and are never allowed to overwhelm the story or the characters. While other films would likely zero in on the powerful imagery of the Arctic hunt this one just accepts the fact that animals are killed and eaten for survival and no further explanation is needed or given. There is no voice-over narration to explain the use of the seal oil lamps, walrus tusk spears, or the myriad other facets of everyday Inuit life. What should seem exotic to viewers is instead presented in the same light in which the Inuit themselves view their lives and environment.
"The Fast Runner" is presented on DVD in its original 1.78:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> format. Shot entirely using a Digital Betacam camera, the end result is an almost unbelievably realistic image that fairly leaps off the screen. Transferred directly from the original digital elements, this transfer is nothing short of stunning. The image is razor sharp with very little evident edge enhancement. Colors are vibrant and natural and the gradations of hue in the white-washed Arctic locale are rendered perfectly. Black levels are fairly strong although some of the darker interior shots do get a bit muddy. There are no noticeable blemishes or other imperfections of any sort to mar this fantastic video presentation.
Audio is presented in a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 Inuktittut mix (bet that’s a first). English subtitles are imbedded in the video stream and therefore can’t be turned off. The audio mix is nice and lively but never sounds gimmicky or forced. Dialogue is clear and the ambient sound effects come through cleanly across all channels. There really isn’t much call for deep bass here so your subwoofer is likely to stay quiet for the most part.
While I loved the film and appreciate the technical quality of Columbia TriStar’s DVD, the lack of any real extras is a bit disappointing and perplexing. All that’s offered are theatrical trailers for "Lagaan," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Limbo" — the one for "The Fast Runner" isn’t even included. For such a unique film the benefit of even a few insightful extras would have been immense. Watching just the start of the end credits should whet your appetite for even more behind-the-scenes footage but, alas, there’s none to be found.
Fans of the film do have the option of tracking down the Canadian 2-disc special edition put out by Alliance as that one is packed with quality bonus features.
"The Fast Runner" is a remarkable film and not just because of its uniqueness and inherent art house appeal. It succeeds largely due to the quality of the writing, directing, and acting efforts of its very talented cast and crew. Here’s a film that could have easily been nothing more than a visually appealing look at traditional Inuit life but instead the viewer is presented with so much more than that. The story that unfolds is a tale of love, lust, greed, and redemption. As an historically accurate time capsule of a disappeared way of life and a celebration of the beauty of the Arctic the film is an unqualified success. As an insightful examination of the basic elements of human existence the film is even better.
"The Fast Runner" comes very highly recommended although Columbia TriStar is admonished for skimping on the extras that the DVD so richly deserves.