Sometimes you watch a film and you can’t imagine being without it. Dersu Uzala is about as beautiful and moving as the Cinema can be. Ironically, having been ignorant of Kurosawa’s brilliance for so long, I am now being spoiled/rewarded with not one but two Kurosawa masterworks in the span of a week.
Both Ran and Dersu Uzala play out on an epic stage, yet reveal the humanity and tragedy within the personal human experience. But Dersu might even be a grander accomplishment since it lacks the overt style or melodrama of Ran. Instead, Dersu Uzala uses lyrical and lush cinematography to achieve a silent affection for the landscape/terrain that is so crucial to the film’s themes of friendship and devotion.
The film follows a Captain in the Russian military and his friendship with a hunter named Dersu. In the middle of a surveying mission in the Siberian winderness, Dersu happens upon the Captain and his unit, shows them the ways of the wild, and helps them survive the gureling environment in which they are completely unprepapred to encounter, both mentally and physically. The two men are forever linked when, stranded on the frozen tundra in the middle of the snow storm, Dersu saves the Captain’s life in the most stunning scene in the film, by cutting down the tall reeds of the plain in order to make a shelter for the night. Dersu’s skill and dexterity are put on display, the Captain and all of his men impressed beyond words.
Dersu Uzala is one of Kurosawa’s most mature film, residing somewhere between the subtle beauty of Ikiru and the harsh brutality of Ran. He doesn’t fill the frame with contrived camera techniques or flashing wipes, because the locale and characters have more than enough drama by themselves.