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Image Entertainment presents
Dersu Uzala (1974)

"Man is very small before the face of nature."
- Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solimon)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: October 21, 2000

Stars: Maxim Munzuk, Yuri Solimon
Director: Akira Kurosawa

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: G
Run Time: 02h:23m:37s
Release Date: October 17, 2000
UPC: 738329017224
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In the early 1970s, the greatest Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, was all but driven out of the Japanese film industry for being "too western"; after immense problems with the film Tora!Tora! Tora! and a 1971 suicide attempt, Kurosawa had hit rock bottom. Things suddenly turned around when he was invited to make Dersu Uzala in Russia. The Vladimir Arsenyev novel was something Kurosawa had wanted to film for decades, and this led to a rejuvenation of his powers and his art, as seen in the follow-up films, Kagemusha and Ran.

Dersu Uzala (which won an Oscar for best foreign film) centers on the friendship of a Tsarist army engineer (the liner notes incorrectly refer to him as Soviet), Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solimon) and the Mongolian guide for his surveying party, the title character (Maxim Munzuk). Dersu Uzala is a nomadic member of the Goldi people, hunting for subsistence in the wilds of Siberia, his family all dead in a smallpox epidemic. At first the Russians treat him like a demented child, for he anthropomorphizes everything from animals to fire and water. However, they soon learn respect for the guide when he repeatedly saves their lives from the elements and the many dangers of the Siberian wilderness. When Dersu's eyesight begins to fail, Captain Arseniev takes Dersu to his home in the city, but the nomad can no more remain in the city than a tiger in a pen.

Like Cooper's Natty Bumppo, Dersu is a wizened and wise man who knows all the ways of the forest and is a crack shot. He respects nature and kills animals only for food, chastising the Russians who shoot for sport. Just as is the case with Bumppo in The Prairie, Dersu represents a vanishing way of life on the frontier, being consumed by the encroachments of civilization. A gang of Chinese bandits also indicate the coming of the ills of civilization, though they are never seen; only their handiwork is visible.

The other major theme is the powerlessness of man before nature. Here, we get the full force of elemental fury, from scenes of Siberian winter that are guaranteed to chill you to the bone no matter how hot it is, to raging rivers and the terror of being lost. Yet Kurosawa makes the film (only his second color movie) beautiful throughout, even when terrifying. A great many scenes are truly gorgeous, such as the silhouetted figures of the two main characters talking quietly, while the sun is at one corner of the frame and the moon at the opposite corner. Amazing sunsets over the fields of snow and ice are both brilliant and astonishing.

This is a meditative and slow-moving film; it is, as the liner notes indicate, a movie about an old man, made by an old man. Yet the leisurely pace nicely mirrors the scale of life in the wilderness. Walking across Siberia is not something to be undertaken at a frenetic pace; only by taking matters slowly can the full journey be made. The film is so naturalistic in manner that it feels as if it were a documentary rather than a work of fiction. This DVD edition is presented by Image Entertainment,in association with Kino on Video.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The source print has a variety of problems, including scratches, dirt, clouding and a fair amount of grain. Considering this is a 25-year-old Soviet film, however, this is not too surprising. The colors are breathtaking at times, and there are good blacks. Unfortunately, Image and Kino did not utilize an anamorphic transfer to get the best out of what is visible in the print. What should be an astonishing visual experience is severely limited by these defects. This is a film which needs serious restoration attention in the not too distant future.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Again, the audio source material is fair to poor. There is crackling and noise to be heard throughout the mono Russian soundtrack. The noise does not, however, seriously compromise the dialogue, music or foley effects.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: Unknown

Extras Review: Although the chaptering is good, and the subtitles are removable and player-generated, there's not much to be seen in the way of extras here. A noisy and improperly matted US theatrical trailer is all that's provided, besides some meager notes on the snapper case. Kurosawa deserves better.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

A beautiful and moving film, given a disappointing, less-than-optimal transfer. Recommended nonetheless, despite the dearth of extras.


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