Sunday, March 2, 2008

Target #197: Dersu Uzala (1975, Akira Kurosawa)

TSPDT placing: #587
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Vladimir Arsenyev (book), Akira Kurosawa (writer), Yuri Nagibin (writer)
Starring: Maksim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin, Svetlana Danilchenko, Dmitri Korshikov, Suimenkul Chokmorov, Vladimir Kremena, Aleksandr Pyatkov

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The Sikhote-Alin region of Siberia – cold, bleak and unforgiving – stretches towards the horizon, an endless haze of snowy rocks and stunted forests. There is seemingly little happiness to be found in the icy, windswept plains of the wilderness, where overexposure has claimed the lives of hundreds of under-prepared explorers, and where the nearest human being might not wander within one hundred miles of your present location. Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev made several journeys into the area in the early years of the twentieth century, charged with performing a topographical survey on the vast region's many of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes. Arsenyev released countless memoirs detailing his explorations, but his most well-known work is "Dersu Uzala (Dersu the Trapper)," published in 1923, which details his three expeditions into the Ussurian taiga, or forest, of Northern Asia, particularly his interactions with a Nanai/Goldi native guide named Dersu Uzala, whose has acquired incredible knowledge, instincts and observation skills through his lifetime of living as a lone nomad in the harsh frontier wilderness.

If I ever had any doubts that Akira Kurosawa was my kind of film director, then I may now consider them groundless. After two solid but flawed efforts in Stray Dog (1949) and Rashomon (1950), I have finally uncovered my first genuine masterpiece from the famed Japanese director, an awesome 70mm epic that emphasises the harshness of the Siberian wilderness, the detrimental consequences of human progress, and the ever-important bond of male friendship. Dersu Uzala (1975) uncovers indescribable beauty in the sheer malevolence of the isolated forest region, where the sunlight, glinting off the fractured layers of snow and ice, offer only a mild relief from the bitter winter cold, and where men cluster eagerly about a roaring campfire to absorb the glowing heat from its flames. In the maddening seclusion of the forest, it is only through teamwork and friendship that travellers can hope to survive the elements, and, in lonely hunter Dersu Uzala, Arsenyev discovers a genuine friend, whose intelligence, awareness and compassion can only be admired with the utmost reverence.
Akira Kurosawa, working with cinematographers Fyodor Dobronravov, Yuri Gantman and Asakazu Nakai, has committed to celluloid some of the most strikingly-gorgeous images since David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The wilderness of Siberia is, at first glance, exceedingly mundane and unremarkable, but, out of the sheer isolation and purity of the landscape, Kurosawa uncovers a noble beauty about the trees, rocks, waters and, indeed, the people who survive there. The film's most breathtaking shot shows Arsenyev and Dersu perched before a pristine sunset, the pair perfectly-framed between the blazing red Sun and the ascending Moon. Out of a bitter windstorm on the frozen expanses of a lake, Kurosawa crafts an intense episode of nail-biting suspense, as the two frantically attempt to gather grass for the purposes of constructing a crude but vital sleeping shelter, their only opportunity to avoid freezing to death in the relentless cold of the Siberian night. Recognising the inherent beauty in the landscape he was photographing, Kurosawa often makes excellent use of long takes, allowing the viewer to simply sit back and absorb the majesty of the wilderness with which he has been surrounded.
Another important theme in Dersu Uzala is the cultural and environmental toll of progress. It was only during the early years of the 1900s that the Sikhote-Alin region of Siberia began to abandon its old-time traditions and lifestyles in order to catch up with the more advanced civilisations that surrounded it. Dersu, who has lived alone in the forest for much of his life, proves a final victim of society's progress, a tragic symbol of a culture that has been irretrievably lost in the past. With his dwindling eyesight, and an escalating superstitious paranoia of the forest caused by his senseless murder of a tiger, Dersu finds that he can no longer provide for himself, and so accompanies Arsenyev back to his home in the city. His spirit crushed and broken, Dersu spends his days staring soullessly into the burning fireplace, consumed by memories of his lifetime in the free and peaceful isolation of the forest. He eventually resolves to return to the wilderness, but is shortly murdered for his expensive rifle; the lone hunter has now been completely destroyed by the unstoppable march of progress, which brings along both its benefits and its unavoidable evils.

Currently my #2 film of 1975:
1) One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
2) Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa)
3) Yozhik v tumane {Hedgehog in the Fog} (Yuriy Norsteyn)
4) Pasqualino Settebellezze {Seven Beauties} (Lina Wertmüler)
5) Jaws (Steven Spielberg)

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