Monday, February 25, 2008

Derzu Uzala (1975)* * *

Dersu Uzala (link to DVD on Amazon)
Derzu Uzala (1975) is a film by the great Japenese director, Akira Kurosawa, that is set right around the turn of the century (1902 to 1910) in eastern Siberia. It is the story of a Russian surveyor who is mapping the far east and north and is based on the memoirs of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev. During one expedition, the surveying group runs into a native hunter, Derzu, who becomes their guide. He is a gentle soul who has known hardship--his wife, son and daughter died from smallpox years ago. Since then he has become a hunter/trapper.

The movie follows the surveyor and Derzu through a series of trips and adventures through the wild Russian landscape--though dense dark forests, wild rivers, and the endless northern tundra. I watched it on a very small screen which was a shame; the landscapes deserve to be seen on a big screen. Derzu is quite old and after a number of years, he loses his keen eyesight and can no longer hunt. The surveyor takes him into his home with his wife and son in a the city, but Derzu is like a trapped bird in the city. Eventually he must return to the woods.

To my eyes, the movie was mainly about grand nature and the smallness of man within it. The part of the film where Derzu and Arsenyev are in the tundra and get caught out after dark especially plays on this theme. The turn of the century was a time of enormous change in Russia--just before the 1914 revolution and the start of the industrial period. The death of Derzu can be seen as a metaphor for the death of nature that occurred at this time. That this is a surveyor team can also be seen as a metaphor--nature's mysteries are reduced to lines on a piece of paper.

Most of the outdoor filming occurs in the Russian far east (just west of Japan) in the Primorsky Kray region. This is interesting to see. Filming also occurs in Siberia, although I could not find out exactly where. Kurosawa really captures the vastness of Siberian tundra.

Why 3 stars? This is considered a classic film by a great director. However, my own take was that the cinematography was super but the acting and story was nothing special. I would watch it again but this time with a projector so I could enjoy the shots of the vast Russian landscape.

This clip from the film will give you a sense of the film:

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