DIRECTED BY: Georgiy Daneliya
FEATURING: Stanislav Lyubshin, Levan Gabriadze, Evegeni Leonov, Yuri Yakovlev
PLOT: A construction foreman and a student meet a man on the Moscow streets who claims to be from another planet; humoring him, they use his “traveler” and are transported to the desert planet of Pluk. There, they meet a pair of aliens who only speak the words “koo!” (until they figure out how to translate the human’s language via telepathy). The aliens are amazed by the earthling’s matchsticks, which contain chemicals that are very valuable on Pluk, and barter to return them to Earth in exchange for boxes of matches—but can they be trusted?
- Kin-Dza-Dza was a minor flop when released in Soviet theaters in the winter of 1986, but later became a cult hit when it was split into two parts and shown on television.
- The movie was virtually unknown outside of the former Soviet Union for many years, only available here in rare dubbed VHS copies until an (almost equally rare) 2005 Russico DVD release.
- In 2013, original director and co-writer Georgiy Daneliya remade Kin Dza-Dza as an animated children’s movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The first appearance of Uef and Be, who arrive on scene in what’s best described as a flying junk bucket. Be emerges in a makeshift cage, squats with his palms facing forward, and says, “koo!” Uef takes two metal globes and places them on the ground flanking his craft. He also says “koo!” Our two Muscovite travelers are nonplussed.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Koo-based linguistics; Patsak nose bells; alien/Russian Sinatra karaoke
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This absurdist science fiction satire was deliberately odd from its inception. Today, since the vanished Soviet Union is almost as strange a world as the desert planet Pluk, Kin-Dza-Dza has become a movie about one alien culture lost inside another.
Unofficial Hollywood-style trailer for Kin-Dza-Dza
COMMENTS: You can describe the plot of Kin-Dza-Dza in detail without actually giving away a lot. Transported to the distant Kin-Dza-Dza galaxy, “Uncle Vova” and “Fiddler” can get home in Chatlan Uef and Patsak Be’s pepelatz. Fortunately, they have ketze, which they can trade for a trip back to Earth, but first the quartet has to acquire a gravitzapa to enable intergalactic travel. They also need to gather luts or chatles to get to Pluk’s capital in order to learn Earth’s stellar coordinates. Complicating their mission, they must avoid being put in an etsikh, or even tranklukated, by the etsilops (or even by PG himself!) for offenses as minor as not wearing a tzak. Also, koo.
In other words, the plot is a chain of MacGuffins, an excuse to show off Pluk and the whimsically absurd Kin-Dza-Dza galaxy. Without the budget of a Star Wars, the filmmakers primarily achieve this through linguistic silliness: the Plukians have about eight defined terms in their language, with “koo” taking the place of every other word in the dictionary. (We get a short onscreen Pluk glossary, but it appears only after the intermission—probably as a refresher after the film was split into two parts for television). Pluk is a desert, we learn, because the Plukians used up all the seas for fuel for their peplatzes. Now, everyone exists in a sort of Mad Max world of perpetual barter—including the commodity of song and dance, which entrances Plukians of every class. The subordinate Pazaks, however, must sing from cages. When Plukians die, they breathe their last breaths into giant balloons, which float around tethered to the planet’s surface. And Pluk is only one of the planets in the strange Kin-Dza-Dza galaxy: we briefly visit a couple of others, including a garden planet where interlopers are turned into cacti.
In keeping with the film’s budget, Pluk is a junkyard, full of people wearing tin-pot costumes that would be too threadbare for the residents of Thunderdome. Sets, and some costumes, were cobbled together from scrap metal and army surplus. The dreaded trankluklator looks like a large garlic press. The desert where they filmed the movie ((Possibly Karakum in Turkmenistan, since they joke about the similarity in the film)) seems the most barren place on Earth; the Mojave is relatively lush. Lucky Plukians live in underground bunkers or cities that resemble coal mines. The planet’s post-apocalyptic vibe makes snowy Moscow look comfortable and welcoming; we might enjoy lingering in Oz for a while, but no one wants to stay on Pluck. Still, director Daneliya manages to find some dusty poetry in this world. There’s a town built around a Ferris Wheel half buried in the sand, some sort of six-wheeled desert birdcage driven around by a female contortionist, and the capital city where (still living) dictator PJ’s grave flies over the outskirts of the town like a giant misshapen weather balloon. Throughout much of the final act, Fiddler wears a modified miner’s gizmo, a wire frame headpiece with a pair of spinning lights attached. There are some relatively large crowds in the capital city to add a sense of scale that’s mostly missing from this bargain epic, but generally Kin-Dza-Dza turns its poverty into an asset.
Kin-Dza-Dza is mostly a humorous look at how Soviets viewed the West circa 1986. When the aliens first appear, squatting and rhythmically chanting “koo!,” Vova’s immediate comment is “must be a capitalist country.” Aside its the barbaric and impoverished language, Pluck’s most notable absurdities are its bizarre economy and its arbitrary class system. Busking appears to be the planet’s primary industry, at least for the ample have-nots wandering the wasteland, singing and dancing for a few paltry chatles per gig. Everyone insists on being paid before performing the slightest task, such as asking for extra plastic to thicken up the porridge. It’s in stark contrast to the Moscow we briefly see, where everyone addresses each other as equal comrades and consider it their civic duty to help a distressed homeless man shivering in the cold. When he learns how valuable ketze is, Vova becomes an expert at predicting alien behavior from their avarice, frequently commenting that they’d crawl across the galaxy for a few matchsticks. Their caste system is even more bizarre, divided up into the rival camps of Patsaks and Chatlans, who can only be told apart by use of a special device which flashes either green or orange when pointed at a person. The Earthlings both register as Patsaks, which means, Chatlan Uef explains, that they must squat and say “koo” whenever a Chatlan approaches them, and wear a bell on their noses. (“This is overtly racist,” whispers Fiddler to Vova). The class structure is even more complicated due to the various shades of pants worn by the wealthy, which may require a Patask to “koo” twice instead of just once. “A society without the color differentiation of pants is a society without purpose,” warns Be. Our poor heroes, proud of their classless homeworld, now know what it is like to be arbitrarily oppressed; when they’re fed up with their subjugation, they’ll rise up and seize the means of production—or at least a gravitzapa for the trip home.
Thoroughly amoral and only out for personal gain, Uef and Be abandon their human friends multiple times when it appears the Earthlings have run out of ketse or other bargaining chips. Yet, Vova and Fiddler keep returning to bail the pair of bumbling clowns out of whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into, and to drag them towards (the human concept of) civilization. In fact, of all the strange things that happen in Kin-Dza-Dza, the Earthlings dedication to helping out the ungrateful aliens might be the most inexplicable. We in the audience find the two scoundrels amusing, but we’d be tempted to pay them back in kind if we were in Vova and Fiddler’s shoes—just let them stay a pair of cacti for all eternity. We know that would be wrong, though. It just goes to show the essential Soviet—er, I mean human—decency that sets us apart from them. The detente between Chatlan and Patsak proposed in Kin-Dza-Dza may have been a signal of the coming Glasnost. The enemy did not need to be destroyed, but could be tolerated, even embraced. Meanwhile, we Soviets—er, humans—declare victory in occupying the moral high ground, The aliens’ technological superiority proves worthless in the face of our ingenuity and sense of honor. Patsaks of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your tzaks! Koo!
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
IMDB LINK: Kin-dza-dza! (1986)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
SadCAST S01 Review – Kin Dza Dza – An English-language video review of the film from 2006
‘Kin-dza-dza!’: The Soviet sci-fi satire that has stood the test of time – A brief article from Russia Beyond with some background on the film
Kin-Dza-Dza (Film) – Surprisingly, TV Tropes has a page dedicated to this obscure little film
DVD INFO: There are lots of options for buying Kin-Dza-Dza—if you speak Russian. If not, you’re only hope is the Russico release (buy), whose subtitles have been criticized, and which is unaccountably split into two DVDs with no special features.
Fortunately, in this digital age, this once unavailable film can be rented or purchased online (on-demand) (a word of warning: this link actually contains the whole film. There is no reason to purchase the one labeled “Part 2” separately). It’s also available free with an Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial. Even better for broke weirdophiles, anyone can watch it for free (at the time of this writing) on YouTube (Part 1) (Part 2), thanks to Mosfilm. If that isn’t koo, I don’t know what is.
(This movie was nominated for review by “russa03,” who called it a “Soviet science-fiction absurdist-comedy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)