“Far North” -- sometimes called “True North” and easily confused with other films -- is a shamanic film. The original story was written by Sara Maitland. Do visit her website http://www.saramaitland.com/ She’s Scots, living alone on the moor the way I live on the prairie. Well, not quite. I’m in town though it’s just a village. And that’s one way this story could be interpreted: the danger of being isolated, so off-the-grid that practical dangers (like an accident) are almost less important than the psychological dangers. Fear becomes a form of pride.
You’d probably better not read this review until you’ve watched the film. (It's on Hulu.) But if you have watched it and are trying to think about it, here are some suggestions.
A second way the story could be interpreted is in terms of the mythic matrix of the far north, the circumpolar world which is the true location of the original shamans. The woman played by Michelle Yeoh (marvelously) is marked by a shaman at her birth and cast out. One could argue that by the end of the story, she IS a shaman, capable of playing a “bed trick” (a deception in which a spurned lover manages to take the place of the truly chosen one, a recurring mythic theme. See Wendy Doniger’s noted book: The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade. It won the Rose Mary Crawshay prize from the British Academy for the best book about English literature written by a woman, 2002.)
A third way to approach this film is through another film: “The Fast Runner,” an authentic indigenous tale cast, written, directed, and shot all by indigenous people. It is also mythic, already nearly impossible to believe by people who live ordinary contemporary urban lives, but then -- in a setting mysterious and deadly -- even more powerful. That film is also about sex, but male rivals rather than female. Anyone ought to know that female rivalry is more dangerous.
The joke, the trick, in “Far North” is that the intruder -- that potent kiltsman Sean Bean -- is named Loki, the archetypal Norse trickster figure. Since tricksters and shamans are related (but not identical) the story could be interpreted as a rivalry over the girl rather than the man. If he were so clever, he ought to have found a way to “marry” both women in the common mother/daughter fantasy (one so understanding and indulgent, the other so sexually succulent).
But did you notice the cross hanging in the doorway towards the end? Maitland was a minister’s wife for a long time and continues to be a devout Roman Catholic. We look for bedrock. One eternal marriage. My mother always taught me that hair meant sex! Ah, yes. It can split the rock. And combs -- combs seduce. They show up in fairy tales all the time.
There is a forecasting, foreboding, rhyme between the beginning and the end. The dog is as skillful an actor as the humans. And the blood suggested everywhere is carefully handled so we don’t get grossed out. In fact, that is the smallest reindeer carcass with the fewest guts that I would have expected. Merely an indicator like many other things. It would be a mistake to get hung up on the likelihood of this and that. The beautiful hooded sheepskin jackets for instance or where that little motorboat came from and went to. I always have to restrain myself from worrying about whether the lamps will run out of oil -- cinematographers love little flames.
Another thread is the intrusion of “civilization.” The soldiers with prisoners, the escapee with his crank radio, the killers of the only small social group Saiva has ever related to and the source of her baby -- all come from outside the indigenous world. When she does her final deed, the sound is the radio bringing a harsh announcer. Earlier, when first demonstrated, the radio plays the best of the outsider world: music. One could say it is the call of the “outside world” that precipitates the tragedy. Loki looks at the carving Saiva has made -- with that knife she is forever sharpening -- and says, “This is beautiful. It could be traded for something truly useful.” He casts it aside.
Or another way to look at this film is as an interpretation of the human mind and the beauty of a dissociation as profound as the arctic sea, so that all emotion and motive is revealed in organic material culture: stone, skin, steel, and antler. Then it is possible that in killing the daughter who was not her own flesh and blood, and impersonating her, Saiva has been impregnated with a new beginning, a true child, just as the world plunges into the darkness of winter.
I’ve been writing about shamanism for the past week or so, reviewing various books. Mostly I’m writing about it to get it off the table so I can talk about liturgy and human feeling. When it comes to shamans people go in one of two naive directions. Either they see “shamanism” as a great supernatural and healing power that they can access with a few tricks or a few drugs. They do not take the danger very seriously, finding it thrilling rather than agonizing.
The other way is that they suppose “shamanism” is just a kind of religious conceit, sort of like Catholic retreat, and everyone is entitled to their little assumptions about proper ritual and values. Nothing is of REAL importance except prosperity and security. I’m pleased to have found Ronald Grimes’ book “Ritual Criticism” in which he gently bumps what he calls “parashamanism,” which is an oxymoron like suburban wilderness -- I mean, like, camping in the backyard where it’s safe. NOT going so far north that you can be both saved and destroyed by a beautiful woman with a well-honed skinning knife.
Circumpolar shamanism, which is -- technically speaking, as Alice Beck Kehoe will instruct you -- really the only proper kind, is something quite specific, unaccountable and desperately final as this film depicts. A true shaman is a suffering and often twisted outcast who should be resorted to only when in extreme need. They are not your friendly neighborhood medicine man, but more like the scary brujo in “The Missing.” The potency of their interventions is entwined with very dark powers.