Film of the Week: 'Fast Runner'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  June 27, 2002 at 11:19 AM
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LOS ANGELES, June 26 (UPI) -- "The Fast Runner" -- a low-budget epic about prehistoric Eskimos that combines adventure on the ice floes with soap opera in the igloos -- isn't quite the masterpiece that rapturous critics have been claiming. Still, while excessively long at 172 minutes, it's surprisingly entertaining.

Made mostly by Canadian Inuit Eskimos in their Inuktitut language (with English subtitles), "The Fast Runner" is slowly rolling out across the United States this summer. Currently playing in 10 big cities, by August it will have expanded to locales as small as Las Cruces, N.M.

The movie looks terrific, in part because north of the Arctic Circle in June, the sun is always low in the sky, imparting warm sunset colors 24 hours per day.

The musical score adds an unearthly resonance to the crystalline landscapes. Much of it is supplied by Huun-Huur-Tu, a pop group of "throat singers" from the Tuva region of Siberian Russia. (Eskimos are more closely related to certain Siberian tribes than they are to American Indians.) Throat singing sounds like gargling raised to an art form.

Because the movie is set in an all-Eskimo world, "The Fast Runner" avoids victimist clichés. The characters are as harsh as the Arctic environment they battle.

(By the way, the fashionable term "Inuit" is not an adequate replacement for the supposedly passé word "Eskimo." All Inuit are Eskimos; but many Eskimos are not Inuit, and resent being called Inuit.)

You'll admire how a people can thrive with almost no plants to eat. Vegetarians, though, will be flummoxed by the many scenes of Eskimos butchering seals, caribou, and walruses and gnawing on their raw flesh.

Less admirable is the way some characters butcher others. Yet, anthropologists recently discovered -- to their dismay -- that hunter-gatherer tribes worldwide typically have murder rates that make Detroit look like Reykjavik. Why? They simply lack governments that possess a monopoly on violence. To enforce order, they must rely on social pressures to conform to custom; ostracism; and honor killings.

The prologue -- something about an evil spell cast during an earlier generation that infects one family with the viruses of greed, lust, and ambition -- is fairly incomprehensible. (The film has a sprinkling of trendy pagan spirituality, but, overall, Eskimos come out looking like pragmatic folks who keep both feet planted squarely on the ice.)

Still, the opening helps you to understand the almost-claustrophobic lack of privacy that's necessary among nomads who roam the empty spaces. Like the Bedouin of the desert, whom Lawrence of Arabia described as "living all in a heap," the Eskimos are dependent upon each other for survival. So, they are unable to escape for long from each other's nagging. Imagine spending your whole life in a society consisting of a few dozen of your relatives and in-laws!

One of the film's pleasures is the sense of accomplishment you'll feel in finally learning to distinguish one hooded, parka-clad character from another, especially the hero Atanarjuat and his nearly identical enemy, Oki.

Antanarjuat loves a pretty and demure girl who has been promised in an arranged marriage to Oki, the nasty son of the chief. His honor offended, evil Oki challenges noble Atanarjuat to "punch heads." This ritual resembles one of those all offense-no defense fights where Laurel & Hardy took orderly turns conking each other on the noggin. Atanarjuat proves to have the thicker skull case, so he gets the girl.

A few summers later, the main character -- now camping in a small tent with his wife, their baby son, and his brother and sister-in-law -- is seduced by the villain's little sister Puja, the Scarlett O'Hara of the Far North. (This vixen is played by Lucy Tulugarjuk, the most charismatic of the otherwise slightly introverted cast). He installs her in the crowded tent as wife #2.

Gentlemen, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but polygamy usually turns out to be more trouble than fun. Atanarjuat's normally subservient first wife complains that her new co-wife is "lazy and bossy" and likes to go off for walks by herself. (Individualism does not seem to be admired in Eskimo women.)

Worse, the hero then discovers that having a flirtatious junior wife and a lusty brother sleeping naked side by side is no way to insure domestic tranquility.

The scandal sets off a murderous feud that climaxes in the now famous, worth-the-price-of-admission-by-itself scene of Atanarjuat fleeing naked for miles across the cracked ocean ice on bare and bleeding feet, with his sealskin-covered enemies pounding along behind, bloody harpoons in hand.

Not rated, but it would be an "R" for sex, nudity, violence, and language. It's not for kids.

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