"Man is very small before the face of nature" this quote, from the only film Akira Kurosawa's made outside of Japan, really sums up this Soviet/Japan masterpiece, and I do not use that word lightly. To have watched two films this week by world cinemas most renowned directors, the other being Satyajit Ray, shows how privileged we can be at times. Although Dersu Uzala (1975) is multi themed, at its most basic level it is the story of two men who transcend simple friendship and elevate it to another level of respect and mutual love.
Vladimir Arsenyev was a famous Russian explorer of the Far East who recounted his travels in a series of books, three of which told of his military journeys to open up the mysteries of the Ussuri basin accompanied by Dersu Uzala a native hunter. Uzala acted as a guide for Arsenyev’s surveying team from 1902 to 1907 and is credited with saving them from starvation and the cold on numerous occasions. Describing Dersu, as a great man who saw animals and plants as equal to men it was when the old hunters eyesight began to fail Arsenyev invited him to stay in his own home alongside his family.
It was when the Japanese director read the books about the hunter which described him as a man who lives in harmony with himself and with nature, which would have appealed to Kurosawa's Japanese psyche, that the great director decided to film the story. This was to be his twenty-seventh film and as I said previously the only film he made outside of Japan. Using a crew from Mosfilm, one of the largest and oldest film studio's in the world and a place where the great Soviet era directors made their films including Andrei Tarkovsky's stunning tour de force Stalker (1979), Kurosawa started shooting in the Primorsky area in what became known as the Russian Far East. The highly honoured Soviet actor and director Yury Solomin portrays Captain Vladimir Arsenyev who also narrates our story. Solomin prepared for the role by reading many of Arsenyev’s diaries and also wrote to his son for intimate details of the man. He discovered that the traveller was in fact a very private man; it was this trait that affected the way he played the role. The very versatile actor Maxim Munzuk, who was one of the founders of Tuva's regional theatre, played the part of Dersu Uzala.
The first part of the film opens in 1910 in Korfovskaya where an urban settlement is being built and Arsenyev is searching for an unmarked grave. The film then goes back to 1902 and we find the Captain on a topographic expedition into the Ussuri region. Its here that Arsenyev and his men first encounter Dersu Uzala who agrees to act as a guide for the surveying party. He is at first viewed as an uneducated and eccentric old man, but he soon wins their respect when they realise that he is a intelligent and wise man who can teach them all a great deal about life and survival in this harsh wilderness which they are attempting to map and where they encounter all the seasons, the ice, the mud and the heat, even saving the Captains life twice, once from freezing to death and another time from drowning in the rapids. At the end of this expedition Dersu leaves the soldier’s and returns to the wilderness. The second part starts in 1907 when Arsenyev sets out on another of his surveying travels and again meets up with the old hunter who happily joins him again. But it’s during this time that Arsenyev notices that Dersu eyesight and his acute senses are beginning to weaken.
It’s not just the wonderful story of two larger than life characters that entices you into this movie but the amazing vistas, the beautiful landscapes, the use of a muted palette, Kurosawa even engaged two cameramen on the shoot, Asakadzu Nakai and Fyoder Dobronravov. And of course we must not forget the incredible natural performance from Maxim Munzuk, it’s a part you could not imagine anyone else ever performing, Munzuk is Dersu Uzala and Solomin has been quoted as saying that there was never any doubt at the auditions that Munzuk, a man in many ways who was similar to his screen character, would play the part. The film was premiered in the town that was named after Arsenyev and shown at The Ninth Moscow International Film Festival where it won a Gold Prize. Yury Solomin has since said that it was a great privilege to work with the Japanese director and in his opinion, and many others’ of course, he was a genius. Solomin had a great personnel respect for the man and their friendship in fact continued for 25 years, right up to Kurosawa’s death. If you have never had the privilege of seeing this tremendous movie then I would suggest you put that right as soon as possible.
|The final resting place of Dersu Uzala.|