Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dersu Uzala (1975 film)

Based on the memoir by Vladimir Arsenyev, Dersu Uzala is the story of a man exploring a region where he later meets a guide who would help him explore the region as they would also endure harsh conditions in order to survive. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and screenplay by Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin, the film is a look into two ideals that collide where a man tries to maintain a way of life as well as deal with changes in the world. Starring Maxim Munzuk and Yury Solomin. Dersu Uzala is a grand yet evocative film from Akira Kurosawa.

The film revolves around an explorer who reflects on his journey in exploring the Ussuri region in 1902 where he meets a guide who would show him this world as they would become friends. It’s a film that play into two men from different worlds and ideologies who work together as they endure all sorts of things as well as being in an environment that is unpredictable but also exhilarating. The film’s screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin is largely told in a reflective manner by Captain Vladimir Arseniev (Yury Solomin) who arrives at a site where a new village is being built as he asks for the burial site of his old friend in the titular character (Maxim Munzuk) whom he had met eight years earlier where Captain Arseniev was leading an expedition in the Ussuri region with some soldiers. They would bump into Uzala who is this Goldi guide who knows the region and its surroundings better than anyone where he manages to win over Captain Arseniev and his entourage despite his eccentric ideas.

The film’s structure is separated mainly into two halves as the bulk of the first half is about the 1902 expedition where Captain Arseniev and his small band of soldiers trek through the woods and rivers in the Ussuri region where they’re to survey the land of Shkotovo. The second half is mainly about the 1907 expedition where Captain Arseniev and a new and somewhat expanded entourage survey the land including its mountains during the course of a year. Captain Arseniev would reunite with Uzala as the two don’t just renew their friendship but also go into more adventures yet would endure some challenges such as some mysterious myths that Uzala believes as well as an encounter with a Siberian tiger that would change everything.

Kurosawa’s direction is definitely intoxicating as it is shot on location at the Russian Far East wilderness with a few shots at a studio in Moscow. For the entirety of the film, there are no close-ups in the film as Kurosawa aims for shots isn’t just about the scope of the locations but also for the characters to deal with their surroundings. Shot on 70mm film, Kurosawa would emphasize on wide and medium shots for the locations as well as shooting the actors at a location where they are having a conversation or look into where they’re at in the forest. There are some carefully-crafted compositions that Kurosawa would make in how he builds up the friendship between Captain Arseniev and Uzala as it starts off with a sense of curiosity from the former towards the latter. Even as Uzala is a man that doesn’t know much about the outside world as he’s more in tune with nature and its surroundings. Yet, he is someone that Captain Arseniev and his team need to know where they’re going as there’s a major sequence during the film’s first half where Captain Arseniev and Uzala deal with intense snowy winds and the only way to survive was to make a camp out of grass. It’s a moment where the two realize their worth to each other as the first half of the film ends when Uzala politely declines Captain Arseniev’s invitation to visit the latter’s home in the city.

The second half begins in a spring-like setting where Captain Arseniev is surveying his surroundings on top of a mountain where Kurosawa’s camera manages to capture so much of the location as it has something that feels peaceful. Even as the film’s tone would darken over the fact that he and Uzala would encounter things that show a cruelty to animals and a rogue Chinese hunting faction that is doing horrible atrocities as they’re being pursued by another Chinese army that respectfully greets Captain Arseniev and his entourage. The third act isn’t just about Uzala coping with his encounter with a Siberian tiger which he tries to evade but also its troubling aftermath where Uzala would deal with things he couldn’t cope with as well as the fact that the world around him is changing. Even as Captain Arseniev brings him to his home where knows that it’s a world that Uzala couldn’t understand nor be a part of. Overall, Kurosawa crafts a meditative yet ravishing film about an explorer’s friendship with a Goldi guide in early 20th Century Russia.

Cinematographers Asakazu Nakai, Yuri Gantman, and Fyodor Dobronravov do incredible work with the film’s cinematography with its natural usage of available lighting for many of the exterior scenes to play into the beauty of the locations with bits of artificial lighting for the film’s final moments in Captain Arseniev’s home. Editor Valentina Stepanova does excellent work with the editing as it is straightforward due to its lack of stylistic editing choices in order to play into the drama and development of the relationship between Uzala and Captain Arseniev. Production designer Yuriy Raksha does terrific work with the look of the hut that Uzala lived in during the film’s first half as well as the home of Captain Arseniev towards the film’s ending.

Costume designer Tatyana Lichmanova does nice work with the costumes from the uniforms that Captain Arseniev and his entourage would wear as well as the winter-like clothing they would wear during the winter as well as the ragged look of Uzala. The sound work of Olga Burkova is brilliant for its natural approach to the sound in capturing the atmosphere of the locations as well as the intense sound of the winter winds as it is one of the film’s highlights. The film’s music by Isaak Schwartz is wonderful for its mixture of low-key string music and traditional Russian choral music that play into the drama and mysticism that the characters encounter in the forest.

The film’s cast as it largely includes an array of Russian and Chinese actors for the ensemble as the focus is mainly on its two principle actors. The performances of Maxim Munzuk and Yury Solomin in their respective roles as the titular character and the book’s author Captain Vladimir Arseniev are phenomenal. Munzuk’s performance is unconventional for its offbeat presentation of the character as a man who seems like this country bumpkin yet offers so much more in how to survive the woods as he gains the respect of Captain Arseniev’s men as he would later cope with aging and feeling out of sorts with the modern world. Solomin’s performance is understated in its sense of grace and understanding as a man who is aware of the job he has to play but does it with a sense of humility prompting him to learn more of his surroundings as well as be sympathetic with Uzala’s sense of alienation in the modern world.

Dersu Uzala is a tremendously rich film from Akira Kurosawa. Featuring a great cast led by Maxim Munzuk and Yury Solomin, astonishing visuals, a mesmerizing music score, and a simple yet touching story of friendship and exploration. The film is truly one of Kurosawa’s finest films in terms of telling a simple story and creating something that is extraordinary. In the end, Dersu Uzala is a spectacular film from Akira Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa Films: (Sanshiro Sugata) – (The Most Beautiful) – (Sanshiro Sugata Part II) – (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail) – No Regrets for Our Youth - (Those Who Make Tomorrow) – (One Wonderful Sunday) – Drunken Angel - (The Quiet Duel) – Stray Dog - Scandal (1950 film) - Rashomon - The Idiot (1951 film) - Ikiru - The Seven Samurai - (I Live in Fear) – Throne of Blood - (The Lower Depths (1957 film)) – The Hidden Fortress - The Bad Sleep Well - Yojimbo - Sanjuro - High and Low - Red Beard - Dodesukaden - Kagemusha - Ran - Dreams (1990 film) – (Rhapsody in August) – (Madadayo)

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