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Dersu Uzala  

Dersu Uzala is from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa`s later period, and is a special and unique film, on par with any other of his acknowledged classics. He was famous primarily for his samurai epics (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran), but also found time to create some great dramas. The ones I`ve seen include Ikiru, one of the great films, period, about a man dying from cancer who attempts one last blaze of glory. And this one is a sweeping emotional and scenic epic, which manages to be both subtle and visually appealing. This fact is impressive when you considered the state Kurosawa was in at this time. This film was produced in 1974, during a period of creative and financial difficulty. Kurosawa was no longer in vogue with the moviegoers of his own country, and was so despondent he even once attempted suicide. For the rest of his career he had to search for financial backing from foreign entities. He had used money from, at any given point, French producers, American financiers, and even George Lucas gave him a handout at one time.

Dersu was even more detached from Kurosawa`s tradition in that it is not even Japanese. This film was made in Russia, with Russian money, and with Russian actors speaking in Russian. The only non-Russian character, a Mongolian, is one who, in the period the film is set in, would have been living in a Moscow-controlled area. Yet even with this pressure of Communist-era film making policies over him, Kurosawa still made a fine film.

The story involves a Russian general and his troops, and their assignment to survey the vast regions of Siberia. One day, during their travels, they meet a very peculiar old man named Dersu, of Mongolian decent. The captain is taken by this interesting fellow, who seems to be a nomad, the vast landscape his only home. It is clear these two will become friends.

And more than just friends, but people who end up saving each other`s lives during very important scenes. Both events involve the severity of nature, the most impressive cinematically during an excursion by the captain and Dersu to a frozen lake miles from the rest of the surveying party. Dersu is a bit afraid of going too far away, but is assured they will be safe. When they arrive at their spot, a windstorm suddenly breaks. Their footprints are covered, and they are completely lost. Dersu suddenly tells the captain to help gather up the long grass around them to form a pile. The captain, and us, have no idea why they are doing this, but they keep piling this grass up. Not until later, do we realize Dersu has done this in order to create a place to protect them for the night from the bitter winds. The captain repays Dersu his ingenious favor later on in a rushing river.

It is interesting how their friendship works. The presentation is very quiet, and modest, probably due as much to the necessary power relationship between the captain and his inferiors as it does to the style of the filmmaker. It is the little things which make their friendship undeniably real. The moment they are finally found after the night of the windstorm. Their parting when it appears they will never see each other again, and then the moment they reunite. The way Dersu pleas with the captain to get him away from the forest when it seems he has angered the gods. The numerous photos the captain takes of trivial, everyday things while Dersu tags along with the troop. The whole friendship is genuine in its own little, unspectacular way.

Dersu is a man who truly is a piece of the nature around him, so attached he refers to all the elements of the world, from the sun to animals, as "men". He does not feel superior to any of nature`s creations, but instead feels a responsibility to follow the rules of the land. He is offended at any kind of waste, from the bullets used by the Russian soldiers for target practise, to the shooting of animals for mere sport. His position in nature creates a great character in itself, but it also is a crucial part of the full story. This develops in some great scenes, including a moment when Dersu hears the sound of a tiger roaming through the woods. He and the captain search frantically for it, carrying their rifles. They both go around and around the area, always seeing new footprints in the snow, but no tiger. Dersu yells at it as if the animal is a deliberate prowler making Dersu`s life difficult, or perhaps like a god or a devil. Only later do we understand the full significance of the tiger`s role. The Mongolians believe in a spirit of nature called Kanga, and to kill a tiger is to anger that god, in ways unforeseen until they occur. Dersu, in the heat of the moment, shoots another tiger who goes near him and the captain. Dersu believes he has killed it, and that Kanga will seek vengeance upon him in some way.

I will not tell you any more of what occurs. But you may discover, as I did, a subtle irony in all the events which occur after this, foreshadowed by the captain`s narration that tragic things occur from that point on. It is a very subtle twist of plot which will take a few minutes to think it over, but I felt it was there. Sure, it`s quite easy to laugh off such primitive superstitious beliefs as Dersu`s, but it is far less easy to dismiss fate and circumstance.

The film encompasses a wide range of experiences. The first half gives way mainly to spectacle and imagery, especially in the great windstorm sequence, while the second half concentrates on the plot. The mood is quiet, reflective, subtle, but should be easy to understand as a whole. The film also has a very innocent feel to it. This is not a harsh story with villains or heroes, or any impossible achievements or events, but simply a story of two different kinds of people, with a gentle friendship, who help each other out of respect and care for their fellow people. On the surface, it is simple. But Kurosawa does wonders with it.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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