March 18, 2009

Dersu Uzala

1975 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa and Yuri Nagibin
based on the book by Vladimir Arsenyev

(1923 book)

Akira Kurosawa had hit a tough time in his life. It took five years to get his last film, DODESUKADEN, off the ground, and it's critical and financial failure sank him into a depression that almost ended with an attempt at suicide. After pulling himself back together, he set out to direct once again, but found that the industry in his homeland had lost interest in him. Looking around for a project, he found himself accepting an offer to go to the Soviet Union and film an adaptation of one of their most beloved stories.

From 1902 to 1907, Captain Vladimir Arsenyev launched a series of expeditions to map out the rugged Siberian wilderness. Along the way, he continuously met up with and quickly befriended an aging native guide by the name of Dersu Uzala.

In the title role is Tuvan theatre actor Maxim Munzuk, who absolutely succeeds at making us fall in love with the iconic character. With his bow-legged trot, piercing gaze, and contagious smile, one can see how such an individual would leave a fond impression in so many hearts, and the enthusiasm of the early half is deftly contrasted against the sinking despair in the later parts as the old man is forced to confront his age.

Also coming from the theatre is actor Yury Solomin who beautifully captures the patient leadership of Arsenyev. While his men laugh and drink like a band of frat-boys, he's constantly on the look-out for new sources of knowledge and wisdom, finding more than he could dream of in the native hunter.

While the rest of the characters are just as undefined as they were in the book, with no names I could recall, or any specific arcs to speak of, Kurosawa still manages to wring a nice dose of individuality from them through his typical use of distinctive looking actors (and, in this case, distinctive beards).

As for the scenic shots, filmed on location in Siberia, Kurosawa once again proves his skills at capturing nature. From the glowing greens of summer, to the gray, deathly autumn, to the white winter wastelands, the director makes the location just as much a part of the story as the actors.

This was a beautiful film. While the story is very basic, Kurosawa gives it a richness and texture that one won't soon forget. After hitting a decade-long lull in his career, it's fitting that he would receive the Oscar for Best Foreign Film with this picture, an honor that gave him what he needed to get his next few projects off the ground.


(internet movie database)

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