“If you are not moved by this story, you are a dead man.”
——Someone, somewhere, I don’t remember.
Honestly, I was not very enthusiastic to watch this film. Kurosawa, 1975, no Toshiro Mifune, no Takashi Shimura, color, first and only 70MM from Kurosawa, first non-Japanese language film from Kurosawa, Russia and an old man as the protagonist, I was not sure what to expect. Yes, I was aware that it won best foreign language Oscar, so what.
The only motivating factor was my love for Kurosawa and alas! “Ask and you shall receive!”
Kurosawa surprises those who consider him to be a master storyteller. There is no story at all. There is just an aging, alone and lonely hunter, Dersu , who helps a small group of the Russian army, led by Captain Arsienev, in a surveying expedition in the Ussuri region. The story ends exactly then and there. Rest is, as they say, the devil in the details.
Dersu agrees to guide the Russian group in their expedition in the first encounter with captain Arsienev. First perceived as an old, nomadic, illiterate, uncivilized man, Dersu earns the respect of the Russians by showing his human side and his excellent observational capacities in the deadly wilderness. He saves the life of Captain Arsienev in a blizzard and the two develop a strong bonding. Dersu is a fearless hunter who is an excellent marksman and an exceptional gentleman who leaves food in an abandoned hut with the hope that someone might return. But, the Russian expedition has to return one day and they do so. Dersu again vanishes in the freezing wilderness.
Five years later, Captain Arsienev returns in the Ussuri region in another expedition and he is united with his old friend Dersu. He finds that Dersu is somewhat a changed man. Time has taken its toll on him. He has grown old and restless. He is actually exhausted, so, the captain offers him to come with him to the city and lead a comfortable life. Dersu agrees, and this is his worst mistake, or maybe I am wrong. I don’t know.
I can’t delve deeper into the story because I have already told you that there is none. The film is entirely shot in the actual outdoor locations and the conviction of every single person associated with this film comes out of the screen with the blizzard that is unaware of the harm it is causing to the people who are caught in it. The cinematography is simply beyond imagination because I am sure that the cameraman has traveled all those places with Dersu and Captain Arsienev. But here I want to make it clear that I do not want to talk about the technical aspects of this film. I just want to talk about the man, Dersu Uzala.
That man is actually the ultimate dream of every male on this planet. He is alone, hunting, traveling, and living the way he likes. He has no one to answer to and is free from any responsibility except his own, he has no use of money and he doesn’t need a woman’s shoulder to cry, and above all, he is contented and happy as hell. What else do we crave for in life? If you are not assured yet, he also owns a rifle and can shoot at his will. The old man is a real hero.
But when he returns after a long gap, he is a changed man as I have pointed out. He has become irritable and anxious. He still doesn’t fear for his life but he is scared. In other words, he has become more human. He is incapable of leading a life surrounded by human beings when Captain Arsienev takes him to the city. So, he simply plans to return into the wilderness. And Kurosawa proves that the jungle is less dangerous for a man like Dersu Uzala than the city. He is killed by god knows whom and it breaks my heart.
The beauty of Kurosawa is that there is no story but there is a story worth telling. There is not a single negative character in this film yet Kurosawa achieves to create a negative effect at the end. Is there no place for men like Dersu in our civilized world?
It is quite refreshing to watch good Russians to which we are not accustomed to because the mainstream Hollywood only portrays Russians as the ones planning to end the world. The technical aspects of this film are ahead of its time.
Like always, Kurosawa again leaves me with questions, questions about the meaning of life. And whether the life even has a meaning or not? I will take my own time to find these answers. In the meanwhile, you watch this movie and I would appreciate if you help me finding those answers.