Criterion Prediction #85: Dersu Uzala, by Alexander Miller

19 Apr

Title: Dersu Uzala

Year: 1975

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Maksim Munzuk, Yuriy Solomin, Aleksandr Pyatkov, Nikolai Volkov, Svetlana Danilchenko, Dmitri Korshikov

Synopsis: Arsenev, a Russian surveyor, is dispatched to the harsh Siberian wilderness where he encounters hardy Goldi native Dersu Uzala, who saves Arsenev’s life when a blizzard blows through by creating straw shelter and keeping the men from freezing to death. Owing Dersu his life and aiding his party in their expedition, Arsenev and Dersu become close friends.

Critique: Dersu Uzala was a huge comeback for Kurosawa, who suffered a series of setbacks and hardships before collaborating with Soviet-based Mossfilm in this coproduction. Red Beard didn’t connect with audiences the way his previous period jidaigeki films had; then there was the debacle with Tora! Tora! Tora! The commercial failure of Dodes’kaden (a flagship movie for the short-lived Four Knights, a collaboration with Kinoshita, Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa) led to the dissolution of their co-op and the director attempting suicide.

Dersu Uzala was new terrain for Kurosawa literally and figuratively; the tone and feel of the film seems to have recalibrated the despondent filmmaker’s sensibilities.

What should feel alien is subtly malleable in the director’s hands. Transcending his earlier Westernized style, Dersu Uzala is a testament to Kurosawa’s pioneering aesthetic. The delicate catharsis is in the narrative of discovery and cultural assimilation. This is a journey for the director as well, as it is his re-acquaintance with the medium. Arsenev’s expedition into the remote territory and his alliance with Dersu Uzala after aiding in his survival are indeed part of the memoir from which the film was drawn. Could it be that the project is responsible for saving Kurosawa as well?

There are traces of Kurosawa in Arsenev and Dersu which could account for their unimposing yet flattering likenesses in the film. The theme of exploration is self-sustaining and Dersu Uzala’s inability to settle in the city where Arsenev’s family lived (also a part of the original story) feels more authenticated as it is emblematic of Kurosawa’s many reimaginings of the samurai class contending with the Meiji era’s modernization.

Dersu Uzala marks a transitional point of remarkable technical maturity. There’s a thoughtful repose to the compositions. The picturesque framing retains the static low camera that one would associate with Ozu or Mizoguchi, shorn of the wipes, dissolves and busy camera movements Kurosawa commonly employed.

There’s a mutual understanding, it seems, with the natural beauty of the location and there’s little necessity in magnifying that. The color cinematography by Kurosawa regular Asakazu Nakai (with Yuri Gantman and Fyodor Dobronravov, whose sole credit this is) is painterly, looking like the watercolors the director would often create in storyboarding his projects. Colors bleed and meld into each other in a graduating color palette that constitutes many of the films gorgeous scenes.

It’s difficult to find fault in Dersu Uzala, mostly because its stark simplicity feels like a result of faithfully adapting the original memoirs into the screenplay. While our modern sensibilities might see this falling into the “noble savage” category; there are some didactic components to the narrative, but Kurosawa’s respect for both characters extends with explicit tranquility – the aesthetic is simple; not the protagonists. Dersu and Arsenev have a mentor/mentee relationship, and their contrasting values are innate of their makeup without taking precedence over their thematic positioning. Dersu embodies an uncomplicated life of hunting and trapping; the crux of his bond with Arsenev comes as a result of saving his life, but their bond is one of respect and admiration. Dersu Uzala features a straightforward story with remarkable visual beauty; subtle, expansive and gets to the heart of the directors cavalier spirit of adventure while charting a new chapter in his maturing style.

Why it Belongs in the Collection: Dersu Uzala is one of the few last blind spots in Kurosawa’s filmography that has not been entered into The Criterion Collection. Most of these were covered by the two Eclipse sets (Postwar Kurosawa and The First Films of Kurosawa). All that’s left are The Quiet Duel and Rhapsody in August. Now that Stalker is donned with a spine number is possible that the walls of Kino are falling? That might be hyperbole. Kino has been putting out some terrific Blu-Rays over the past few years.

For the longest time, Dersu Uzala was only available through Kino Video on VHS and DVD. Now, with what looks like a restoration (since my only frame of reference is the VHS, it’s hard to say) on Filmstruck, it could be possible that Dersu Uzala is coming to The Criterion Collection. There’s a cruel irony in that Dodeska-den has the tarnished impression of a film that feels implicit in Kurosawa’s suicide attempt; Dersu Uzala has the opposite distinction of signaling a rebirth. This lesser seen entry will very likely find a receptive audience who, according to forums and blogs, are eager to see Dersu Uzala in a restored form. An additional avenue of interest is Criterion’s tendency to offer feature-length bonus features with their releases, providing a different version of the film in question. Berlin Alexanderplatz has the 1931 movie of the same name, His Girl Friday includes Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page and Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession has the 1935 iteration of the story. There’s plenty of this in Criterion’s catalog. And with another film adaptation of Dersu Uzala from 1961 floating around, who knows? It would be fun to see as a bonus.

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