Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Dersu Uzala

(Дерсу Узала, Japan, USSR, 1975)

Dersu Uzala (Дерсу Узала) (デルス·ウザーラ) (Japan, USSR) (1975) There never was anything that could be characterized as “A Kurosawa Film.” Yeah, he made some samurai movies and other films from Japanese history. But he also did several adaptations of Shakespeare, such as Ran from King Lear and Throne of Blood from Macbeth. He did modern dramas like The Bad Sleep Well, from a story by Ed McBain, and Drunken Angel about the Yakuza. He even adapted Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. But this is probably the least Kurosawa-like film he ever did. For one thing, it is in Russian, not Japanese. It takes place somewhere in the bleak vastness of Eastern Siberia. It is a true story, the tale of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, who was sent out into the snowy plains and dense forests in 1902 to survey the uncharted wilderness. He would have certainly perished at least twice had he not encountered an ethnic Goldi hunter-trapper named Dersu Uzala. He agreed to be the guide for the party.

At first the Russian soldiers laughed at this funny little old man with his broken Russian, but it didn’t take long for them to realize that they would have been in very deep trouble without him, as they are ignorant of the ways of this land, and he knows everything about it. They come to respect him deeply, and Arsenyev comes to regard him as a friend, and loves him deeply. There are two expeditions, the second in 1907, when Dersu saves them all from attack by a tiger, but this is the beginning of the end for Dersu. He believes that a forest spirit will send another tiger for him, it’s only a matter of time. And he is losing his eyesight. Before he could sever the rope holding a swinging bottle; now he can’t even see the deer his friend is shooting at. He comes home with Arsenyev to Khabarovsk, but it doesn’t work out. He can’t adapt to city ways, and even though Arsenyev’s wife and son love him, too, he heads back into the forest. Where he is killed shortly thereafter.

But it’s not really a sad movie. We all die, and Dersu had a long and happy life. He is wonderfully played by Maxim Munzik, an ethnic Tuvan and a remarkable man. According to Wiki “He was actor, director, singer, collector of musical folklore, composer, and teacher. He played a huge number of roles of the most varied characters and directed the Tuvan musical-drama theatre.” Tuvan music is known for a strange thing called “throat singing,” where the singer produces two notes at the same time. It’s weird to listen to.

This had to have been a terribly difficult shoot. At least half of it was shot in winter in the bitter cold. There is one extended scene where the two friends are lost on a flat plain and a blizzard is blowing in. Dersu says if it gets dark, they will die. So they start cutting down all the grass they can find. The Russian is soon so exhausted that he collapses. When he wakes, he finds that Dersu has somehow made a shelter out of the grass, and they are cozily inside of it. It is an amazing scene, a harrowing scene. This is a really terrific film that is about so much more than epic adventure. It is the story of friendship, of two men who come to deeply love each other. See this one.