Saturday, March 7, 2015

Russia in Classic Film Blogathon Special: Dersu Uzala

Dersu Uzala (Дерсу Узала) 
Starring:  Yuriy Solomin, Maksim Munzuk, Mikhail Bychkov, Vladimir Khrulev, V. Lastochkin, Stanislav Marin, Igor Sykhra, Vladimir Sergiyakov, Yanis Yakobsons, V. Khlestov, G. Polunin, V. Koldin, M. Tetov, S. Sinyavskiy, V. Sverba, V. Ignatov ,Vladimir Kremena, Aleksandr Pyatkov, Svetlana Danilchenko, Dmitriy Korshikov, Suymenkul Chokmorov, Daniil Netrebin, Serafim Zaytsev, Nikolay Volkov, V. Kiryanov, Tsun Di-go, Z. Mademilova, A. Erdniev, Vladimir Prikhodko
Director: Akira Kurosava 
Atelier 41, Daiei Studios, Mosfilm, Soviet Union, Japan, 1975.
This is my contribution for "Russia in Classic Film" Blogathon (March 8-10 2015) hosted by Fritzi Kramer at and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Visit the site for great articles on Russian themed movies (click the banner below)!
The movie is based on the 1923 book "Dersu Uzala" (a.k.a. "With Dersu the Hunter" and "Dersu the Trapper", highly recommended reading!) by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev (1872–1930). In the book Arsenyev tells about his expeditions in the Ussuri basin (Russian Far East) and his friendship with hunter Dersu Uzala (1849–1908). The story was already filmed in 1961 by director Agasi Babayan and starring Adolf Shestakov and Kasym Zhakibayev.
real Vladimir Arsenyev
Vladimir Arsenyev (1872–1930)
real Dersu Uzala
Dersu Uzala (1849–1908) (picture from Wikipedia)
The 1975 movie was Akira Kurosawa's first non-Japanese-language film. After the commercial failure of "Dodes'ka-den" in 1970 he struggled to get funding from Japanese studios. In 1972 Soviet studio Mosfilm offered him the funding for filming "Dersu Uzala". Kurosawa accepted the offer on the condition that he would have full creative control of the filming (this was not fully realized). The screenplay was written by Kurosawa and Yuriy Nagibin. At first Mosfilm would have wanted Toshiro Mifune to play Dersu, but it was have been impossible for Mifune to be tied up in such a long project so Maksim Munzik was chosen instead. Later it is easy to say that physically powerful Mifune would have been miscast, Munzik with smaller physique fits the role perfectly.

Kurosawa spent year and a half in Soviet Union. The filming began in 1974 in Siberia. Filming was difficult due the harsh conditions. After being released in 1975 the movie got lukewarm reception in Japan, but was widely acknowledged in other countries. The movie won Golden Prize and Prix FIPRESCI at 9th Moscow International Film Festival (1975) and Oscar prize for Best Foreign Language Film (1976). In 1978 George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped Kurosawa to get funding for production of "Kagemusha", which finally restored his director status in Japan.

On his lifetime Vladimir Arsenyev was a famous scientist and explorer. Stalinist regime did not appreciate his work. What happened to his family during the Stalin era was tragic. There is some conflicting information about Vladimir Arsenyev's family. The book does not mention his wife and children at all. In some biography sources and in the film his wife is named Anna Kadashevich and he has a son Vova. However in other sources (for example "The Conquest of the Russian Arctic" by Paul R. Josephson ) Vladimir's wife is named Margarita Nikolaevna Arsenieve and his daughter Natalia (it is possible that Vladimir was remarried). Vladimir was accused of spying for the Japanese but before he could be arrested he died after falling ill during an expedition to Amur River (source: "The Tiger" by John Vaillant). After Vladimir's death in 1930 his widow was arrested in 1934 and 1937 and she was accused of being a spy and executed. Also teenage daughter Natalia was sent to gulag prison camp, an experience that she never fully recovered. Later Arsenyev's work became appreciated again and and in 1952 town of Semyonovka was renamed Arsenyev.

The movie begins in 1910 in Korfoskaya when Captain Arsenyev (Yuriy Solomin) goes to visit the grave of his old friend. He does not find it because the village is rapidly expanding. The main story then returns to 1902. Arsenyev is making a geographical expedition in Shkotov. The soldiers spend an uneasy night in the valley. At night a hungry hunter Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk) comes to their camp. The men give him food. Dersu is from Goldi tribe and lives alone in the mountains as his wife and children died of smallpox. Arsenyev asks Dersu to act as their guide. The soldiers are a bit scornful first of the funny little man, but Dersu's skills about surviving in wilderness impress Arsenyev. A deep friendship and mutual respect develops between the two men. 
Yuriy Solomin
Captain Arsenyev and the construction works in the village
Maksim Munzuk
Dersu Uzala
Olentiev (Aleksandr Pyatkov), Arsenev and Dersu
Arsenyev describes Dersu as kind-hearted man who could give help to people he had not met and probably would not meet. This was demonstrated by Dersu fixing a hut found in the forest and leaving matches and dry wood there for next visitors to use. Dersu is also an excellent shooter and wins the soldiers in shooting match. Dersu lives in harmony with the nature, taking only what he needs to survive. In the wilderness even an empty bottle may be valuable. Dersu teaches the group to respect the powers of nature.
Dersu is an excellent shooter
During the expedition they meet a hermit and other indigenous people living in the area. Near Lake Khanka Arsenyev and Dersu wander too far from the others. A storm hits when they are standing over the frozen lake and they lose their tracks in the snow. As the cold night in the open means a certain death Dersu uses his survival skills and they build a shelter from reeds. 
Wind makes Arsenyev and Dersu lose their tracks
Dersu's reed hut
Arsenyev asks Dersu to move to Vladivostok. Dersu declines because then he could not hunt sables anymore, so it is time to say goodbye. In 1907 spring Arsenyev returns to Ussuri area and meets Dersu again. There is a tiger in the area, a sign that Dersu sees as a bad omen. Also Honghuzi bandits are raiding the area. Dersu has an off-screen shootout with the bandits. The expedition meets a Chinese officer Tsang Bao (S. Chokmorov) who is fighting against the Honghuzi. This was truthful to the book. However the badly fitting scenes where the heroes save three men who are tortured by Honghuzi's and Dersu's uncharacteristic raging against "evil Chinese" are not present in the book and can be taken as  a touch of Soviet propaganda as the Soviet-Chinese relationship were strained in 1960-1970s. 
Local people offer shelter and food
Happy reunion
S. Chokmorov
Arsenyev and Dersu meet Tsang Bao
Dersu is getting old and his eyesight is worsening, which is fatal for a hunter. Nature can be a horrible place for the old and the tired. Arsenyev asks him to move to the city and live with his family in Khabarovsk. However Dersu can not adjust to city life after living his whole life in the wilderness. Although the life in city is safer, there are a lot of rules and restrictions Dersu can not understand. He returns to the forest for the rest of his days.
Dersu and Arsenyev in portrait
Dersu stalking tiger
Arsenyev's family, wife Anna (Svetlana Danilchenko) and son Vova (Dmitriy Korshikov)
The movie is slow moving and in many scenes almost documentary style. The naturalistic style may be a deterrent to some people who are expecting similar action as in Kurosawa's samurai epics. There is warmth in the friendship of Dersu and Arsenyev and in contrast the few scenes depicting contemporary modern civilization are cold, bureaucratic and unsentimental. The movie depicts a natural way of life that is vanishing as civilization advances. The voices of nature are always present, singing birds, flowing water and howling wind. The film uses both film score by Isaak Shvarts and folk songs sung by soldiers or native people. The Siberian harsh conditions are skillfully depicted, and there are beautifully shot landscapes with cold winter sun and frozen earth.
Siberian cold winter
The movie is mainly a two man show, but in the first part of the film there are also jovial soldiers Turtygin (Vladimir Kremena) and Olentiev (Aleksandr Pyatkov). Arsenyev's family, wife Anna (Svetlana Danilchenko) and son Vova (Dmitriy Korshikov) are left aside, mainly their function is to demonstrate Dersu the difference of city live versus the life in forest. Compared to the book the film version of Dersu is a more polished person, and also Arsenyev seems to know less about nature in the film. There are also some small dramatic differences, but the main storyline is quite truthful to the book.

Rating: Excellent


  1. You make the movie sound like an intriguing piece of film and history. I will make room on my ever-increasing must-see list for "Dersu Uzala".

    1. That is nice to hear!
      This is my favourite of Kurosawa's latter films.

  2. Thanks so much for joining in! It's been a while since I have seen this but I remember thinking that the blizzard scene was absolutely brilliant. Thanks so much for the excellent review!

    1. Thank you for organizing the blogathon! So many interesting films there!

  3. This sounds really intriguing, especially since it's a Soviet-Japanese collaboration. Great post!

  4. I finally got to see this one, along with a bunch of other obscure items, at a Kurosawa festival at San Francisco's Parkside Theater in the early 80s. I liked the way Kurosawa worked within the difficult conditions. Thank you for sharing with all of us.


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