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Wisdom in the woodland
A UK region 2 DVD review of DERSU UZALA by Slarek
 

It remains a peculiarity of cinema history that the films of Kurosawa Akira, revered for so long throughout the world, were once held in rather low regard in his own country, so much so that by the late 60s, funding for his films was becoming increasingly hard to secure. In 1967, a co-production was announced between Kurosawa Productions and 20th Century Fox to produce Tora! Tora! Tora!, a recounting of the attack on Pearl Harbour that would present the story from both the American and Japanese perspectives. Kurosawa began work on the Japanese half of the film but the American studio were apparently not happy with the results and the director ultimately left the project. The task of shooting the Japanese section of the film eventually falling to Fukasaku Kinji.

In 1970, Kurosawa's comparatively low-budget but very personal story of lives of a group of Tokyo slum dwellers, Dô desu ka den, became the first production of The Committee of Four Knights, a group founded by Kurosawa along with fellow directors Ichikawa Kon, Kobayashi Masaki and Kinoshita Keisuke. They were keen that their first film should be a hit. Unfortunately, it wasn't. On 22nd December 1971, the man many regard as the greatest of all film directors attempted suicide by making six slashes to his throat and eight to his wrists. Fortunately for him, for his friends and family, and for film history, the attempt did not prove fatal.

In 1973 Kurosawa began work on Dersu Uzala, a co-production with Mosfilm Studios to be shot in Russia and in the Russian language, the director's first non-Japanese film. What could have felt like the result of enforced compromise – Kurosawa had to leave his home country to get a film made – turned into a triumph. The film won two major prizes at the Moscow International Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Five years later, with financial assistance secured in part by longtime fans George Lucas and Francis Coppola, Kurosawa made Kagemusha, one of his most widely celebrated works and a Palme D'Or winner at Cannes. Perhaps even more significantly, it scooped a number of major awards at Japanese festivals.

Based on the memoirs of Russian explorer Captain Vladimir Arseniev, Dersu Uzala tells of his 1902 surveying expedition as head of a small company of soldiers in the Ussuri basin close to the Russian border with China. One night the group make camp and sit around the fire to eat when they are joined uninvited by an old hunter named Dersu Uzala. The soldiers laugh at his pidgin Russian and his woodland wisdom, but Vladimir decides to hire Dersu as a guide and the soldiers' initial mockery subsides as they begin to learn from and respect the man. When Vladimir and Dersu venture into the icy Siberian wastelands and lose their way, it is Dersu's quick thinking and determination that saves their lives. Three years later, the Captain leads another surveying group into the area and searches for his old friend, with the hope of persuading him to come and live with his family in the town of Khabarovsk.

If you come to Dersu Uzala exclusively from Kurosawa's samurai films then you'll probably be ill-prepared for what you get. A gently paced, almost action-free character study, filmed largely in long shot with only occasional shifts to medium close-up, and with precious few of the exhilarating tracking shots that you'll find in the director's visually busier works. Where there is a clear connection with earlier works from the director's extraordinary oeuvre is in the underlying humanist thrust of its story, a theme that you'll also find in films as diverse as The Quiet Duel (1949), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear (1955), Dô desu ka den (1970) and the later Dreams (1990). It's an element very much to the forefront here, with the added irony that a professional solder learns from a woodland hunter – two men for whom a rifle part of their identity – to live and let live. It is clearly intentional that the only injuries inflicted by their weapons, one of them indirectly, are the result of accident rather than deliberate action.

The conservationist message extends beyond the destruction of the Siberian woodland to the wildlife and even the forest inhabitants, Dersu included. The hunter despairs at the mass trapping of animals by the Chinese Hunhutsi and is bemused by a desire to hunt more than you can eat. But Vladimir's offer of a home away from the forest for his friend, no matter how well intentioned, is equally disruptive to the natural cycle.

The developing and sustained friendship between Vladimir and Desu is the dramatic core of the film, and although such a relationship may not be new in itself, it is handled with rare level of subtlety and emotional depth. The lead performances are key to why this works as well as it does, with Yuri Solomin displaying impressive restraint as Vladimir and Maksim Munzuk delightfully low-key as Dersu, a role that would have allowed many a character actor to chew the scenery. He's easy to engage with, a societal outsider in complete harmony with his surroundings, one whose knowledge and wisdom comes not from verbal or literary instruction but from the basics of everyday survival. In spite of their training, the soldiers have none of Dersu's experience with the land, its animals or its people, and even when they save him from a possible watery death, they are able to do so only by following his instructions. That they learn so much from him, perhaps without even realising, is perhaps the film's most positive message of hope for future generations, which is in no way eclipsed by the tragic turn the film take in its later stages.

Kurosawa seems as much at one with his locations as Dersu himself, highlighting their beauty without over-glamorising them, with the opening shots of the forest, accompanied as they are by Isaak Shvarts' sometimes haunting score, recalling a similar location overview in Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The unhurried pace feels absolutely right for the story, and when incident leads to urgency – as with the gripping fight for survival on the Siberian ice or Dersu's rescue from the river – the tension is effectively wound up without dramatic adjustment to pace or style.

Dersu Uzala is in all respects a masterful and sometimes beautiful film, handsomely photographed by a trio of cinematographers (Fyodor Dobronravov, Yuri Gantman and Nakai Asakazu, the last of whom who also worked on Kurosawa's later Ran) and telling a moving and involving humanist story of the meeting of two men in a landscape that, as Vladimir learns, deserves to be treated on equal terms to his companion, and to command similiar respect.

Final point: it has been suggested in a number of quarters that Dersu himself, a wise old man in the woods dressed in ragged clothes and with a singular way of speaking, was an inspiration for Yoda in the Star Wars films. It's not hard to see the connection, especially when you consider how much of a fan of Kurosawa's work George Lucas was and is, and that the characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO were based directly on the two thieves in Kursosawa's 1958 The Hidden Fortress.

sound and vision

Oh...bugger. When I first heard that Artificial Eye were releasing a 2-disc DVD of Dersu Uzala I could hardly contain my excitement, the idea of seeing the film restored to close to pristine condition being a Kurosawa fan's dream. This was, after all, the only film made by Kurosawa that was shot on 70mm. Maybe, just maybe, I got my hopes up too high.

Now I should state before continuing that the package here is a licence of a Russian Cinema Council title, from whom Artificial Eye also sourced Solaris and War & Peace. The latter contained a restoration job from severely compromised original material and the imperfections were understandable. Now I'm starting to wonder if I was right to be so forgiving. To put it bluntly, the picture here falls a long, long way short of my hopes and even expectations. At its best (exteriors in sunlight) it looks rather good, and there are almost no signs of dust or damage throughout, but for the most part the image is soft and is often lacking in the area of fine detail, with noticeably muted colours and black levels that vary from shot to shot. Watching it again on an LCD monitor I could see what looked suspiciously like video scan lines, which suggests this was sourced from tape rather than film.

But the biggest problem is a constant flickering of brightness and contrast (and sometimes colour), that at worst looks almost as if the film has been dropped in some damaging chemical before the transfer was made (this is something that cannot be shown in the screen grabs.) There was a similar problem on War & Peace, but I made allowances there due to the restoration issue, but it's every bit as bad here and, in one scene set in fog, actually looks a little worse. I found this, coupled with the other imperfections, severely distracting, and simply cannot believe that more could be done to make an internationally acclaimed, award-winning film from one of the world's greatest directors made in 1975 (the very period that prints of martial arts movies were being so mistreated in Hong Kong, only to be recently restored to near-perfection by Hong Kong Legends) look better than it does here. The fact that it was released some years ago on laserdisc by Criterion in apparently far better condition only drives a spike into the wound.

The original mono sound from the 35mm print has not been included here, only a 5.1 remix, quite possibly sourced from the 6-channel track that accompanied the 70mm screenings. Thankfully it's a good one – clear, glitch free and with very specific use of the surrounds, with some nicely inclusive weather effects. Whether it's true to Kurosawa's original intent is another matter entirely. An English language dub is also included and it's surprisingly tolerable as these things go.

extra features

Both the film and the extra features are spread over 2 discs. Why? Good question.

Disc 1

Vladimir Arseniev (0:59)
Archive footage of the real Vladimir Arseniev, which would be interesting if it ran for more than a minute.

Making the Film (4:49)
A Russian produced short on the making of the film with brief but interesting behind-the-scenes footage. Not long enough, though.

Photo Album
12 production photos, presented as thumbnails that can be selected and enlarged.

Disc 2

Y Solomin is Speaking
An interview with Yuri Solomin, the actor who played Vladimir Arseniev. This is subdivided into three parts – About the writer Vladimir Arseniev (4:47), About the director Akira Kurosawa (9:04) and Making the Film (6.55) – and is the most substantial extra on either disc. Solomin talks engagingly about the town of Arseniev and the memorial there to the explorer and his hunter friend, landing the role in the film and the long-term friendship that developed with Kurosawa, amongst other things.

There are also Filmographies for ten of those involved in the production.

summary

Oh man. A marvellous film that has not been received the treatment it deserves on this DVD, the transfer making it look like a lost film from the 1950s rather than an Oscar-winner from the 70s, and quite why it's spread over 2 discs is beyond me. It may well be that we're looking at the best print the Russian archives have available, but I can only hope a better one comes to light and someone of the likes of Criterion get their hands on it.

 


The Japanese convention of surname first has been used for all Japanese names in this review.

Dersu Uzala

Soviet Union / Japan 1975
135 mins
director
Kurosawa Akira
starring
Maksim Munzuk
Yuri Solomin
Svetlana Danilchenko
Dmitri Korshikov
Suimenkul Chokmorov

DVD details
region 2
video
2.20:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Russian
English
subtitles .
English
extras
Interview with Yuri Solomin
Archive footage of Vladimir Arseniev
Making-of featurette
Photos
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
26 February 2007
review posted
25 February 2007

Related review
Dersu Uzala (2011 DVD release)

See all of Slarek's reviews