02 April 2020

Dersu Uzala: Man is small before the face of nature

Vladimir Arsen’ev (Yuri Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk) in Dersu Uzala

I am unfortunately not as well-versed in the filmography of Kurosawa Akira 黑澤明 as I ought to be. The ones which I recall seeing, and all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed, have been Rashômôn, Ikiru and Yume. I’ve only just finished watching Dersu Uzala now, and it is truly one of the most sublime and visually-stunning movies I’ve yet seen. It’s also one which I really should have watched a long time ago when doing this series on North and Central Asian films, because it really places a film like Shaman in context.

Dersu Uzala was a Mosfilm production, but Kurosawa demanded – and was given – full creative control over the screenplay and the direction. That is indisputably for the best. The artistry of the movie is spectacularly lush, a bold and sumptuous 70-millimetre canvas of riotous hues and dazzling lights and darks: the greens, yellows and reds of the forest palette; the masterful use of light and shadow to convey size and distance; the atmospheric effects of sunlight, moonlight, snow, steam and smoke. This movie is, in a word, iconic. The cinematographic ‘language’ Kurosawa uses in Dersu Uzala should be instantly and intimately familiar to Star Wars fans. George Lucas clearly had been watching the sun and moon shot as his inspiration for the Tatooine horizon in Star Wars; the frozen lake sequence as his inspiration for Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back; and the forest scenes in the second half of the film as his inspiration for Endor in Return of the Jedi.

Yet – for all the compliments Lucas paid this film’s imaginative depth in his own work – this is no space opera, but a very much this-worldly ballad of survival in which a small band of men is pitted against the gorgeous ferocity of the Far East Russian taiga and everything it can throw at them: blizzards, raging rapids, traps, bandits and tiger attacks. Humanity manages to weather the spirits of nature, on account of the reverent decency, wisdom and gentleness of one human being in particular.

The screenplay of Dersu Uzala is actually based on the real-life memoirs of Captain Vladimir Klavdievich Arsen’ev, a surveyor and explorer who worked first for the Tsarist government in Russia, and later for the socialist Far Eastern Republic. In 1902 while surveying the lakes of the Ussuri region, he met and came to depend on the eponymous local guide. Dersu Uzala is a trapper and hunter who belongs to the Hezhen [also Hezhe 赫哲, Nanai Нанай or Gol’dy Гольды] people, a tribe closely associated with the Evenkil, the Manchu and the Udegei, with whom they share a common body of lore and traditional shamanic religious customs (though nowadays the Evenki are mostly Orthodox, the Manchu Chinese folk religionists, and the Hezhen and Udegei Vajrayâna Buddhists).

Warning: spoilers below.

Despite an awkward and ambiguous first meeting, Vladimir Arsen’ev (Yuri Solomin) comes to like and admire Dersu (Maksim Munzuk), who has a deep reverence for the forest, and regards all animals and all forces within the woods and hills of the taiga as ‘people’ deserving of the same respect. In addition to being (of course) a deadly sharpshooter, Dersu has unparalleled tracking skills and powers of observation, and is often able to deduce from minute details including touch and smell what transpired in a given place several days back. When Dersu leads Arsen’ev and the military contingent accompanying him to a cabin, and furthermore described the old Chinese traveller who had been there some days before, Arsen’ev begins to trust the trapper to greater degrees.

Dersu Uzala assists in Arsen’ev’s survey mission, and saves Arsen’ev’s life on multiple occasions. He and Dersu get separated from the military unit and lost on a frozen lake just as a blizzard begins to blow up; to escape freezing to death, Dersu and Arsen’ev cut down and bundle the long dead stalks of grass on the lakeshore, and after Arsen’ev collapses from cold and exhaustion Dersu is able to construct a makeshift shelter with it, using the captain’s surveying tripod as a tent frame. Arsen’ev’s men are able to find them once the blizzard passes. Continuing their survey, Dersu assists them in other ways: when their food is running low and they’re at risk of starving, he helps them find an Udegei urireng which has made a catch of fish. While they’re in the shirangju Arsen’ev extends an invitation to Dersu to join him in the city, but Dersu refuses, and says he must leave their company the following day. Arsen’ev, sombre but grateful for Dersu’s help, offers him food and money, and Dersu replies that he can hunt his own food and trap sable furs for money. Instead Dersu reluctantly asks for cartridges, and these Arsen’ev’s men gladly give him. Dersu parts ways with Arsen’ev’s company when they reach the KVŽD.

Five years later, Arsen’ev is mapping the topography of Ussuri. Arsen’ev misses his old friend and hopes to meet him again, and indeed, when one of his soldiers reports that an old Hezhen trapper is asking for Arsen’ev by name, he jumps up and goes to greet him – not even taking his gun despite the young soldier’s precautions. Dersu gladly joins Arsen’ev’s party again as a guide. Once more they rely on his help, as when they need to ford a river by a raft and one of Arsen’ev’s men loses a pole in the river, setting the raft adrift. Dersu pushes Arsen’ev off the raft and tells him to swim ashore. And then it falls to Arsen’ev’s men to save Dersu, who clings to a log in the river to save himself from the rapids beyond, which are vicious enough to destroy the raft.

Dersu spends the rest of the autumn in Ussuri with Arsen’ev’s expedition, and Arsen’ev recollects it warmly, saying that his fondest memories of Dersu are from that autumn. But autumns in Siberia are short. Arsen’ev’s party happens across a part of Ussuri which is frequented by tigers, but also by predators of a more mundane sort: honghuzi 红胡子, or ex-Boxer rebels who have taken to banditry in the border country. The honghuzi make their living by trapping, but Dersu is appalled at their methods, saying that they kill more than they need. They also prey on local Chinese people, stealing the women and leaving the men bound up in mosquito-infested waters to die. Arsen’ev and Dersu free the living animals from the traps, rescue the imprisoned men, and assist the local Chinese baojia 保甲 militia – led by a certain Zhang Bao (Súımónkul Chokmarov) – in hunting down the honghuzi. Later they come across a tiger who has been following them. In order to save Arsen’ev, Dersu shoots the tiger, wounding it. Chagrined, Dersu drops his rifle, and explains to Arsen’ev that the tiger will run until it dies, and then the lord of the forest Kanga (similar to Ilmun Han in the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness) will send another tiger to kill him for this bad deed.

Dersu sinks into an ill mood after that, lashing out at the other members of the party and alienating them. He also begins to lose his eyesight – and for a rifle-hunter like Dersu, that is an irreparable loss. His fears of the tiger’s vengeance also begin to grow, and Dersu takes up Arsen’ev on his offer of hospitality. Arsen’ev allows Dersu to move in with his wife Anna (Svetlana Danilchenko) and his young son Vova (Dmitri Korshakov) in Khabarov, and they all welcome him warmly – in particular Vova, who hero-worships Dersu. However, Dersu faces difficulty in adapting to city life. He cannot understand why people sell water and firewood when they should be able to go out and get it for free. He cannot understand why people aren’t allowed to shoot guns inside the city. And he becomes listless being caged up in a ‘box’ and longs to sleep outside. After he is arrested for trying to chop down a tree in the city park, he asks Arsen’ev if he can return to the hills, since he knows he can’t live in the city. Before he leaves, Arsen’ev gives Dersu a rifle – the latest model, so that he can’t miss even with his poor eyesight.

At the end of the film, Arsen’ev gets a telegram saying that a dead Hezhen has been found with his name-card on him, and the investigator is requesting a positive identification from him. Arsen’ev goes to where they found the body, and on seeing him confirms that it is Dersu. The investigator is surprised on hearing that he is a hunter, saying he found no gun near the body. When Arsen’ev tells him he’d given Dersu a new rifle, the policeman speculates that he might have been killed for it. The policeman orders his assistants to bury Dersu, and Arsen’ev stands his walking stick up at the head of his grave.

End spoilers.

Dersu Uzala seems to be something of an inspirational touchstone, not only for Star Wars here in the West but also for the whole genre of Siberia-based survival films. One can see deliberate echoes of both Kurosawa’s cinematographic and thematic preferences in the Ermek Tursynov films Kelin and Shal, for example. Given Rustam Mosafir’s self-avowed admiration for Kurosawa and for genre film in general, it’s little surprise that there should be deliberate echoes of Dersu Uzala in Begletsy: both the colour palette of the forest scenes, and the character of the Evenki hunter who helps the runaways and muses on the strange and contradictory lusts of the white man for gold and for otherworldly bliss. And, of course, in Shaman we see the same tensions between a hostile but beautiful and bewitching Siberian taiga, and the city life to which the main character cannot return.

In a sense, then, Dersu Uzala can be seen to belong firmly in the tradition of the Ostern: the transposition of the American Wild West onto the Eastern frontiers of Russian and Soviet expansion into North and Central Asia. But despite the sumptuous settings and Kurosawa’s obvious affection for his Siberian wildscapes, this is not a film about primordial antiquity versus modern encroachment, nor – despite Dersu’s frequent disparagements of the greed and wastefulness of poachers or certain of the city folk – is it necessarily an œcologically-minded film, though those elements are present as well.

The struggle for survival is the story structure which allows Kurosawa to dwell on the purely human elements that struggle exposes. It really is a film about the friendship between these two men. And it is about the genuine sweetness, generosity, hospitality and reverence of Dersu Uzala himself. Dersu may be considered a continuation of Kurosawa’s bushidô-influence ideal type, particularly with his sharpshooting skill and his intimate knowledge of and respect for nature. But his temperament is very far from martial. Although his entire family was killed by a smallpox outbreak, ostensibly caused by the encroachment of the Cossacks, there is nothing in him that suggests any sort of desire for revenge. (Yes, even we box-dwelling types can learn a thing or two from Dersu in our day and age.) Instead, his character is marked by humility, generosity even for people he might never see, selfless compassion for those in danger. There is much more of the Eastern Orthodox solitary hermit about him than the daimyô.

To conclude: Dersu Uzala is powerful, profound and sublime. Though it’s considered a minor work in Kurosawa’s opus, not necessarily having the drama of Rashômôn or the dynamic action of The Seven Samurai, there’s still plenty here to hold one’s interest. It truly is worth watching for the masterful camerawork and the obvious affection for the land that Kurosawa was moved to use wide-gauge high-resolution film to contain. I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough.