Saturday, July 6, 2013

Over the Hills and Far Away

Film: Dersu Uzala
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I make no secret of my love for the films of Akira Kurosawa. I’ve said before that my favorite Kurosawa film is the last one of his films that I’ve seen. Sadly, this is a trend that stops with my viewing of Dersu Uzala. This is not to say that this isn’t a great film or a film that shouldn’t be treasured. I just didn’t like it as much as I do the other Kurosawa films I’ve seen. I want to stress, though, that up to this point, Kurosawa has been a nearly perfect director in my estimation; Dersu Uzala not living up to that impossibly high standard is not at all a knock on it.

A group of Russians in the first years of the 20th century have been charged with making a topographic survey of a part of the Russian wilderness. They are led by Captain Vladimir Arseniev (Yuri Solomin). On their expedition they encounter a man named Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk) who lives in the forest and survives as a hunter. Dersu’s family is gone and he has no home, but survives as comfortably as he needs to. The soldiers soon recognize that the mountain man is very skilled and knowledgeable and ask him to be their guide for the rest of their expedition. Dersu has a number of practices that suggest a great deal of respect for his world and for others; he asks for food to be left in temporary shelters for other people who wander through, for instance.

Dersu proves his worth throughout the trip. He saves Arseniev when the two are separated from the rest of the expedition. Recognizing the danger, he builds them a temporary shelter which keeps them safe from the terrible cold. Eventually the expedition ends and Captain Arseniev invites Dersu to return to civilization with him. The old man declines, deciding that he does not belong outside of the forest.

Time passes and Captain Arseniev again returns to make another survey of the area. While they make progress, he believes that they would have made much greater progress if they had the services of Dersu Uzala. Eventually, the two meet up again and Dersu again agrees to accompany the expedition. He again proves his value, but the intervening years have not been kind to the old mountain man. It’s soon apparent that his eyesight is going. He is unable to shoot accurately anymore when before he had been more accurate than the Russian soldiers.

Eventually, Dersu does return to civilization, but only in body. It’s soon evident that he doesn’t belong there and can’t survive in the world of men. Similarly, he can no longer survive in his familiar forest, making him a man without a place. The second and third acts are about Dersu’s physical decline and what happens inevitably after.

I said at the beginning of this that I like Kurosawa’s other films more than I like this one, and that’s accurate. Dersu Uzala would not be my first choice were I to choose to watch a Kurosawa film. And yet there is still greatness here, and my disappointment in this is only a relative disappointment. I expected so much of anything bearing Kurosawa’s name that anything less than cinematic perfection is a tremendous disappointment.

Again, this is not the fault of the film. The man hit so many home runs as a director that it’s easy to be sad when he only hits a double.

While Maksim Munzuk is the titular star of the film, it is the incredible setting that is the true star here. This is a film of intense visual beauty. Even the harsh winters are startlingly beautiful. As with any film that takes place in such a spectacular setting, it’s the cinematography that must be truly special if the film is to have any worth at all.

And so I liked Dersu Uzala well enough, but I not-so-secretly wish it were something more than it is. It’s perhaps a little too direct, and Kurosawa always feels better when he’s adapting Shakespeare. But I’d watch it again without question. It just wouldn’t be my first choice.

Why to watch Dersu Uzala: It’s Kurosawa.
Why not to watch: It’s the least of Kurosawa’s films on The List.


  1. I thought this was an improvement over RED BEARD and DODESKADEN, maybe Kurosawa's worst film.

    1. At this point, I'll take your word for it, since I haven't seen either of those two films.

      It wouldn't shock me that there's bad Kurosawa out there--I've been lucky enough that Dersu Uzala is the lowest point I've reached, and it's still a pretty high point.

  2. I saw this just a couple of weeks ago. Your reaction sounds very similar to mine. I liked it, but I wouldn't put it with the best of Kurosawa's films. It was interesting to see him doing a "Russian film", too.

    If you still have the DVD, can you let me know what you think of this? The film opens with the man trying to find the grave, but the area has been cleared of trees. He asks about a specific tree. A man points him towards a stump, he walks over, and that's when we flashback to the bulk of the movie. When we come back to the present at the end of the movie, the man kind of gives a wistfull look around, as if sad he couldn't find the grave, then walks off. To the screen-right of him, not too many feet away, I would swear that there is a mound of earth that looks exactly the same size as the one we saw in the flashback. Am I imagining things, or is that what it is? And if I'm not imagining it, we are supposed to understand that the man did not see it, right?

    1. I don't still have the DVD. I tend to send back to NetFlix as quickly as possible to foster getting the next one as quickly as possible.

      I remember what you're talking about, but since he was there for the burial, I can't imagine that he didn't see it. He may have just been looking at the destruction of Dersu's forest wistfully. That's more or less what I took from it.

  3. Yeah, there is a definite wilderness lost theme here, which I think Kurosawa nails. I am not certain this is such a big step down from his other movies, but you really need to get into that meditative mood to fully appreciate it.

    1. Right--it's a big change, and that can be difficult when you go into this with specific expectations.