Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

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Released 9-Dec-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio & Animation
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2001
Running Time 167:47
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (80:04) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Zacharias Kunuk
Studio
Distributor

Madman Entertainment
Starring Natar Ungalaaq
Sylvia Ivalu
Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq
Lucy Tulugarjuk
Madeline Ivalu
Pauloosie Qulitalik
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI ? Music Chris Crilly


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None Unknown Dolby Digital 5.1 (256Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures Yes
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    I found Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner to be both a fascinating look inside another culture, and an enjoyable film. Let's start by getting a couple of definitions correct.

    Shaman, the word itself comes from the Tungus of North-Central Asia. It originally only referred to one particular group of practitioners. Over time, the meaning was expanded to include the spiritual practices of a wide range of native beliefs ranging from the native American medicine men though to the practices of the south American Indian Yage, the Celtic beliefs and practices and many others. Speaking in very broad terms they use an ecstatic trance state to move between the upper and lower worlds, often accompanied by an animal spirit guide. In some practices they escort the spirit of the dead, act as healers and are regarded as having many different magical powers. Sometimes they use certain herbs and plants to enter the trance state accompanied by drumming or other rhythmic sounds, usually at about 220 beats per minute. This particular beat encourages the mind to enter the theta state, which is the brain wave pattern associated with a trance state. Some shamans act out or take the form of their animal spirit guide - they wear the skin of a wolf, or as in the case of this film, they use a prop made from the animal in question, such as a set of rabbit feet.

    Inuit, sometimes erroneously called Eskimos (which in some places is regarded as an insult) specifically refers to the Inuit of Canada. In Inuktitut, their native language, Inuit means people.

    This film was produced, written, directed, filmed and acted by the Inuit people themselves. Some of the actors have worked in films before, and for others this is their first film. The acting is hard for a foreigner to judge, as we have no baseline for the normal behaviour of these people. They might naturally be relatively quiet people, or they could be stagestruck from the moment the camera hits them. While there were times when I thought the film could have been a little tighter in its editing, at no time did I lose interest in what was happening on screen.

    The story is based on a legend of the Inuit people. An evil Shaman visits a small community and leaves in his wake a curse of bitterness and discord. The old leader is murdered and Sauri takes over as leader. He uses this position to torment his old rival Tulimaq.

    Twenty years later both Sauri and Tulimaq have children, two sons for Tulimaq and one for Sauri. Tulimaq's sons are Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner. Sauri's son is Oki. Tulimaq's sons are great hunters, and the balance of power within the community begins to shift, leading to a confrontation when Atanarjuat wins the hand of the woman that is promised to Oki. He wins Atuat in a competition of head banging. This appears to be a way of settling arguments between members of the community. The two combatants take turns hitting each other in the temple with a hammer fist (the part opposite the thumb when you make a fist), and the last left standing wins. I wondered at the time if this was developed by the people to avoid serious injury during disputes, both as a reflection of their peaceful culture and from the hard fact that any injury in such a harsh environment would probably mean death.

    Egged on by his father, Oki plans revenge on the brothers and sets out to kill both. The remainder of the legend is a spoiler for the film so I will wrap it in spoiler quotes.

(SPOILER ALERT: highlight with mouse to read)     Amaqjuaq is killed but Atanarjuat manages a miraculous escape aided by supernatural forces. He is sheltered by an old couple while recovering after his escape. The old couple themselves left the community many years before because of the evil that was there. Atanarjuat, with the help of the old man who is also a Shaman, learns to confront both natural and supernatural enemies and heads home to rescue his family.

    The story lets us see into the lives of these people. We see a very harsh and forbidding (but beautiful in its own way) land where survival is a daily chore. In winter they are in the middle of a great snow desert, in summer it appears to be little more than rocks and some tundra. That people can live in this region is a testament to their ingenuity. We see into the daily lives of the people, some of their games, how they interact with each other and the land in which they live. We also see how they deal with problems within their community and a little of their spiritual beliefs. While the film goes for nearly three hours I sat glued to the screen for three reasons.

    The first is that this is a very enjoyable story and the characters are real, and in the case of Atanarjuat and Atuat they are very likeable characters that you come to care about. Any holes or pauses in the story were taken up by the magnificent scenery and by my fascination with both the native culture and their spiritual beliefs.

    I also loved the humour that is in the film. Some of the jokes had me rocking in my chair.

    The spirituality and the community values were also something that I found both very interesting and wonderful.

    Someone that is not as interested in these aspects of the movie may find that the story moves a little slowly at times. The only part of the film I could criticise is the opening scenes, which do not tell the story of the early part of the legend very clearly.

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Transfer Quality

Video

     Unfortunately, the transfer suffers from a couple of problems. The film was shot on NTSC digital video and thus has suffered through an NTSC to PAL conversion and then MPEG compression. The source material also seems to have a few problems even before this process began.

    The disc is presented at 1.78:1 which appears to be the original aspect ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

    The image could have been much sharper. Even stationary objects are blurred and moving objects are both blurred and affected by motion blur and leave trails (more on this later). The film appears to have been shot with natural light as it was found depending on where they were filming. Outside on the ice this is very bright, but they have not used any fill lights and as such anyone who is backlit has their face in shadow, particularly if wearing a hood. Inside the igloos during the day is not too bad as the ice walls allow though a nice diffuse and even light, but at night the only light appears to be the native version of a candle - a bowl of animal fat that is set alight along the edge of the bowl. It appears that it is someone's job to keep playing with this the entire time that it is lit, keeping a ridge along one edge. I think this is because they don't appear to have any wicks. The light put out by this is barely enough to light a scene for filming even by video. The shadow detail does its best under these conditions and does contain a surprising amount of detail but it is an uphill battle, and there are sections of the film where there are large sections of black on screen. There is a lot of video noise both outside and inside. This can be distracting in scenes with large even expanses of blue sky where it is particularly noticeable. In some scenes there is also some overexposure in the whites, but again considering the lighting conditions out on the ice this is almost to be expected.

    Colours are a little washed out. Skin tones are acceptable but I expected a deeper blue in the sky.

    The main problem with the transfer, besides the lack of sharpness, is the motion blur and trails that any moving object leaves. On camera pans, such as the one at 19:46, not only do objects leave a trail, but in some cases (the people in the background) a ghost of the person appears in the location that they will occupy in the next frame. This jump ahead is quite distracting and as the movement is at just the wrong speed, the ghost image superimposes over half the existing image and completely blurs all detail. Another example of this is at 4:58 where the camera pans past a fire inside one of the igloos. This makes it hard to spot traditional MPEG artefacts but it would appear that pixelization has been kept to a minimum. The camera is hand-held for large portions of the film, sometimes leading to a bit of shaking. The video noise I have already mentioned.

    The subtitles are easy to read, though sometimes when you are inside the igloo at night and already struggling to make out details in the low light they are a little bright and throw the rest of the picture into darkness by contrast. Whether they are accurate to the spoken word I cannot say.

    This is an RSDL disc with the mildly distracting layer change at 80:04.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

     Considering the budget and the digital video this is a surprisingly good 5.1 soundtrack.

    There is a single Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on this disc in the Inuit native language Inuktitut.

    Dialogue quality appears to be quite good, although when you don't speak the language this is a little hard to judge. The audio sync also appears to be correct.

    The music appears to be a little confused at times. While I loved the native singing which was unaccompanied (except in one scene by a hide drum), at other times there was some background music that appeared to contain didgeridoos I can't think of an instrument that is further from the ice-bound land near the Arctic Circle where this film is set. Other than these instances, the film is pretty much unaccompanied musically.

    The surrounds are used quite well to place you in the locations. The cold wind whistles around you, and the warmth and activity within the igloo also surrounds you.

    The subwoofer does get a look in with accompaniment to some of the music and adds a good depth to the soundtrack, although it doesn't draw undue attention to itself.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Menu

    The 1.78:1 menu consists of a series of still pictures from the film with a still image of fog or snow that is transparent moving across the image. Occasionally a snowstorm blows past and the still image underneath changes. The audio is a native singing unaccompanied.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    There appears to be two R1 version of this disc, a Columbia Tri-Star R1 release in the US and a Alliance Atlantis R1 release in Canada. A comparison of the two R1 versions is very interesting and disappointing. The Columbia Tri-Star R1 version is a bare bones disc (like ours) and has good image quality (unlike ours) but the subtitles are burned into the image. The Alliance Atlantis R1 version has a swag of extras, including a Fact Track, Production Dairy, Navigate Through the Legend, Filmmaker Biographies, Cast and Character Biographies, A Look at Art Direction, Photo Gallery, About Igloolik Isumo and a Trailer but the image quality is bad (again like ours). So to summarise: We have a bad image and no extras, Canada gets the extras but also the bad image and the US gets a good image, no extras and burned-in subtitles.

    As you probably won't be watching the film without subtitles and the image is the primary concern I will punt for R1, but only under protest as I don't like burned-in subtitles.

Summary

    There is a scene in the middle of this film where one of our characters runs across the ice naked, totally buck naked even down to no protection on his feet. There are pools of water on the ice that he splashes through that must be just above freezing - talk about a dedicated actor! If you head into this film expecting great production values, good (or even average) editing and so on you will be disappointed If you want to see a culture that appears little changed from the oldest of times then this film will fascinate.

    The video is poor.

    The audio is good.

    The extras are missing.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Terry McCracken (read my bio)
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDSkyworth 1050p progressive scan, using RGB output
DisplaySony 1252q CRT Projector, Screen Technics matte white screen 16:9 (223cm). Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with AVIA Guide To Home Theatre.
AmplificationSony STR-DB1070
SpeakersB&W DM305 (mains); CC3 (centre); S100 (surrounds); custom Adire Audio Tempest with Redgum plate amp (subwoofer)

Other Reviews
DVD Net - Terry K
Jeff K's Australian DVD Info Site - Andrea G

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