You wouldn't think it possible to combine Japanese understatement with Soviet literalness, but "Dersu Uzala," a film Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made in the Soviet Union, proves that it is possible. Also that it is not desirable.
Dersu is a Mongolian hunter who lives alone in the hills of Siberia, where he is hired as a guide by a Russian military surveying party at the beginning of the century. The film, based on abook by the captain of the surveying team, does not really have a plot, but follows the group through some beautiful and dangerous terrain, showing the development of the captain's respect and affection for this man of nature.
Vast - and successful - efforts are made to avoid anything more dramatic. For example, suspense builds when the party discovers victims of Chinese bandits and is about to set chase when some Chinese dash at them out of the bushes. It is quickly established that these are friends; the friends promise to chase the bandits and exit. Our party says fine, and goes back to its regular work. End of Chinese bandit episode.
This might not matter if the film were exciting as a character study. But Dersu's talents as a guide and as a primitive speaker of wise thoughts often seem so doubtful as to make him seem ludicrous and the captain seem foolish for sentimentalizing him.
It starts in the first scene, when Dersu mysteriously appears at the military campsite and, while lighting his pipe, briefly sets his own foot on fire. Nothing is made of this, but it is not good sign in a native guide. And while there are many times later when he saves people's lives, he is also given to the unfortunate habit of announcing, "Now we're done for." His widom, at least in translation, seems equally clumsy. "The sun is a man" or "The river is a man" is about the extent of it.
Dersu's tragedy is that he gets too old to live in the wilds, but cannot survive in the city. But when he puts on his shaggy furs and tries to chop down trees in the park, this becomes unintentional low comedy. And certainly it's impossible to believe that the captain's genteel wife is unreservedly thrilled to have such a houseguest.
This is the kind of heavy-handed documentation that robs the picture of any poetry it might have had. If the portrait could not have been done strongly enough to stand alone, Kurosawa - whose classics include "Rashomon" and "The Seven Samurai" - could have used some of the swift drama of which he is a past master to make it stand out.