A Soviet science fiction film directed by Georgiy Daneliya, Kin-dza-dza! will make you feel insane. Like a dream that only makes sense while you’re in it, the alien, dystopian world the film presents is vaguely familiar in its absurdness, as the tactile prism of the story’s focus (the mundane details of daily life) yields to the filmmaker’s more pretentious and overt goals of holding a mirror up to our own reality. Hence, the dark reflections we see of ourselves in the harsh landscapes and cultures translate an immediate intimacy to an otherwise baffling set of customs, values, and languages.
Or: it’s as weird and fucked up as living on Earth.
The film begins in Moscow, as Vladimir, a construction worker, is stopped on the street by a man carrying a violin case. This man, Gedevan, needs help with a crazy, shoeless gentleman claiming to be an alien. Inquiring as to Earth’s coordinates in order to get home, the alien man presents Vladimir with the transporter—who just like anyone who can’t help reading from the Necronomicon—plays with it, instantly sending him and Gedevan to a Tatooine-esque desert planet.
There, they quickly encounter Bi and Wef. They are two, seemingly human performers, who after doing a jig that mystifies the Earthlings, are pissed not to get paid and threaten to leave them alone in the desert. However, just as they’re leaving, they see that Vladimir has matches for his cigarettes. It turns out that matches are extremely valuable on this planet (named Pluk). A deal is forged: if Bi and Wef help Vladimir and Gedevan get back to Earth, they’ll give them a shit-ton of matches.
Which, as things tend to go in these matters, is easier said than done. The two Earthmen must navigate Pluk and its bizarre societal structure and economy to obtain the materials for a transporter. Just as on Earth, there is a funky—and from afar, stupid and racist—class system that is divided between Chatlanians and Patsaks, a distinction that can only be made by using a small device that emits an orange or green light when pointed at an individual. Vladimir and Gedevan scan as Patsaks, of course, and are relegated to lowly troubadours, traveling the desert landscape and singing for money.
The people of Pluk communicate only with the words “koo” and “k’u” (the latter a “socially acceptable expletive”); they are telepathic and therefore able to speak to the Earthlings in their native Russian by reading their minds. Cultural superiority and prestige are dictated by those who wear the right color pants. If you wear the wrong pants, you must bow to those above you and shout “koo!” and hang a bell in your nostrils.
The brilliance of Kin-dza-dza! is that it hits the ground running, as if you’re already familiar with the rules of the universe, only briefly stopping halfway through to explain some random tidbits about the language and customs of Pluk. Consequently, the audience is constantly playing catchup, and the dizzying and dreamlike first viewing requires one to confront their own stupid ass social values in order to pierce the film’s obtuse veil. (You think it’s idiotic that matches are so valuable? Well, how much fucking Tesla stock is in your mutual fund?)
An absurd, funny, and poignant film, Kin-dza-dza! is an underseen delight. It has a huge cult following in Russia, but its exposure to Western audiences has been fairly non-existent. Luckily for us, the film is now perfectly restored and streaming (for free!) with English subtitles on Russian Film Hub. Check it out ASAP.