Review: Dersu Uzala (1974)

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This is an interesting film. Akira Kurosawa is one of cinema’s most impressive directors, and I’ve a tendency to dribble superlatives when writing about him — my apologies. In any case, you will (or should) know him as the director responsible for The Seven Samurai, Ran, Sanjuro, and many other well-known Japanese films. Most of the films he is famous for are shot in Japan and often set in feudal Japan, telling tales of the samurai and warlords of the country’s past.

Dersu Uzala is different. In 1973, after his output had slowed considerably, Kurosawa was invited to make a film in the Soviet Union. He’d always been a fan of Russian literature and was happy to do the film, adapting an autobiographical story of a Russian soldier named Arseniev, about his map-making expeditions in Siberia in the first decade of the twentieth century. The plot centers around an old Mongolian hunter that this captain and his men encounter named Dersu Uzala, whose affinity with the taiga (forest, in Russian) makes him a perfect guide and someone worthy of respect.

It’s hard to describe the story in too much detail without giving it all away, but Dersu earns the respect of the Russians very quickly with his closeness to his world and (for the more jaded among them) his skill with a rifle. Kurosawa really focuses very tightly on the character of Dersu, with much of the captain’s role devoted to showing his developing admiration for the old man. Along the way, they face many of the dangers of the taiga — including bandits, the ferocity of the elements, and tigers (taiga tigers, even!)

Kurosawa’s famous affinity for using the elements comes into full view in this film, too, with pouring rain, and howling wind appearing in many scenes, particularly one where the captain and Dersu are suddenly stranded out on the ice outside the forest — with sunset approaching and no cover in sight. Dersu says simply, “If we don’t work fast, we die.” The wind and cold become an almost palpable enemy, increasing in strength as the light ebbs away and they struggle to survive. The starkness of the landscape is very apparent, but beautiful as well; we seem them trek through red leaves in autumn, and crunch through the snow and ice in winter.

Maksim Manzuk is excellent in the role of Dersu and manages to convey a broad range of character traits very simply — the little hunter is an easy man to like, and seems almost a caricature sometimes, both very wise and yet naive. The sense that Dersu really belongs out in the wilds is brought home very sharply by what happens when he encounters civilised life — he asks a man he meets to look after his money, not even realising it’s been stolen when the man disappears. His decline towards the end of the film is hard to watch, even though we know it’s coming (the film begins with Arseniev looking for his grave).

Dersu Uzala is an intimate, character-driven drama with an amazing setting in the Siberian wilderness. Definitely worth your time.

9 taiga tigers out of 10.
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