The Haida wildman is ready for his close-up in Edge of the Knife

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      Starring Tyler York. In Haida, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      The first feature shot entirely in the Haida language is an incantatory visit to a faraway time and place that is somehow still with us, in more than ghostly form.

      Shot in various parts of Haida Gwaii, or what used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands, Edge of the Knife takes place in an unspecified part of the 19th century, with very little visible intrusion from Europe. (That changes by the time of the film’s very brief coda.)

      Two extended families meet on a small island ideal for summer hunting, cooking, and hanging out. Solid, slightly pudgy patriarch Kwa (Willy Russ) has been looking forward to seeing his buddy Adiits’ii, although he knows the guy is a somewhat trouble-prone handful. (First-timer Tyler York resembles a shambolic Adam Driver in this part.) In any case, Kwa’s young son admires the lanky fellow’s free-spirited ways—a problem when he joins his hero on a fishing trip Dad is against, due to darkening weather.

      Adiits’ii eventually rows home alone, and runs into the dense forest to escape punishment, if not shame. Most others assume he has died, and they all decamp to warmer climes while our guilt-ridden screwup struggles to survive the winter. As the man gets more desperate, he gradually loses his human bearing and begins to transform into a wild creature, known in Haida lore as a Gaagiixid, presented here with a simian gait and weird facial protuberances: part Sasquatch, part porcupine!

      Back among the civilized folk, Kwa still yearns for revenge, although his wife, Hlaaya (Adeana Young), counsels restraint, insisting that if Adiits’ii should ever be found alive, there would be ways to reclaim him. Their dilemma could be seen as relevant to the task of recovering First Nations strays who wander into the lost world of drugs and alcohol, or are simply cut off from history and community. First-time codirectors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown don’t overstate their intentions.

      The foreground story is interesting, even if somewhat slowed by stiff staging and the notably phonetic recitation of nonpro actors. But look at the degree of difficulty they are working against, with fewer than 30 fluent Haida speakers on the planet today! What really sticks is the reconstructed slices of everyday life, with woven clothes and sleek carvings appearing strikingly modern in this arboreal context. And it’s fascinating to see the young people of more than a hundred years ago display different tastes in piercings, tattoos, music, and humour than their elders. In that and other senses, this Knife stays very sharp indeed.