Issue 43 (2014)

Georgii Daneliia and Tat’iana Il’ina: Ku! Kin-dza-dza (2013)

reviewed by Sasha Senderovich © 2014

kuKu! Kin-dza-dza is an unusual film several times over. For starters, it is the famous Soviet-era comic director Georgii Daneliia’s remake (together with Tat’iana Il’ina) of his own science fiction feature, which appeared at the dawn of perestroika (the film was completed in 1985 and released in early 1986) and was widely interpreted as diagnosing the fatal condition of Soviet society. Set in outer space, on a planet with the social structure and material shortages resembling those in the Soviet Union, Kin-dza-dza (as the original film was titled after the name of the galaxy where the action was set) instantly became a cult sensation, with a number of phrases from its dialogues entering everyday vocabulary. By comparison, Daneliia’s remake was hardly going to make any kind of a noticeable splash, as serious devotees of the original film still prefer the 1986 version. Moreover, nearly three decades after the release of Kin-dza-dza, Daneliia’s remake is an animated feature, which may be disconcerting for those who watched the original film many times and remember the brilliant live action performances by Evgenii Leonov, Iurii Iakovlev, Stanislav Liubshin, and Levan Gabriadze. There is some consolation for them in the fact that the tall clown / short clown routine of Iakovlev and Leonov is replicated in similarly lean and pudgy characters respectively in the animated remake; Evgenii Leonov’s son is the voice behind the remake’s version of the elder Leonov’s character from Kin-dza-dza.

kuLastly, after recent disastrous remakes of and sequels to classic Soviet films (such as the new version of The Irony of Fate, the making of which the actress Liia Akhedzhakova, a member of the original cast, called a sacrilege), Daneliia’s remake of his own film begs the inevitable question of “why spoil a good thing?” Of course, by way of seeking an answer to this last question, one might speculate whether the cultural and political meanings of revisiting a film from 1986 in the second decade of the 21st century comes in the meanings that have accrued to the earlier film in the intervening decades. With the elapsed time standing between these two films, Daneliia undoubtedly invites the viewers to ponder the associations between the end of Stagnation era in Kin-dza-dza and the second decade of Putin’s reign.

Despite the number of changes in the plot, Daneliia pretty much follows his and Rezo Gabriadze’s script (occasionally, the director even introduces characters that were in the original movie script but didn’t make it into the 1986 film itself). Like the two protagonists of Kin-dza-dza, the protagonists of Daneliia’s new film encounter a stranger on the streets of Moscow; the stranger claims to be from another planet and asks the passersby about the coordinates of the planet Earth so that he can properly set the device he has for returning him to his own planet. In Kin-dza-dza this device itself looks futuristic enough but in Ku! Kin-dza-dza, made in the era of smartphones, it is hardly impressive: indeed, the present-day technological oversaturation somehow makes the film far less believable from the get-go. The earthlings carelessly press a number on this device that turns out to be the coordinates of a planet named Pliuk, where both are immediately transported.

kuPliuk is a kind of post-apocalyptic desert where water has been turned into fuel (“luts” in the local dialect) and where the chemicals contained in matches (“katse”) are immensely valuable. One match is enough to acquire, by barter, a “gravitsapa”—a mechanical part that allows a flying vehicle (“pepelats”) to fly vertically—and inter-galactically. Pliuk is populated by two types of creatures who form a kind of a caste system: there are the “Chatlanian” creatures who control this planet (though not all other neighboring planets) and the “Patsak” creatures. The Patsaks are the underlings who are required to show respect in front of any Chatlanians they may encounter by hitting themselves twice on the face with the palms of their hands, squatting down and saying “ku!” (both Patsaks and Chatlanians are required to do the same in front of the planet’s policemen, the Etselops). The expression “ku,” different from the word “kiu” that is a publically permissible expletive, covers an endless range of meanings in the local language. In addition, the Patsaks—and visitors from Earth who turn out to be members of this lower caste on Pliuk—are to wear little bells—“tsak”—in their noses. The planet is ruled by a dictator named P. Zh. who is openly admired by the public for restoring the oxygen supply to the planet (previously, some on the planet had to pay for oxygen use). A giant balloon containing the last breath P. Zh. will take before he dies hovers over the wasteland of Pliuk’s capital city. On closer examination, there is an entire army of the planet’s inhabitants working—in scenes reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—to keep P. Zh.’s last breath continually inflated.

kuThe earthlings of Daneliia’s original film are a Moscow foreman sent to buy bread by his wife, and a young man who had just arrived from Daneliia’s native Georgia carrying a violin that belongs to someone else. The two meet by chance near a grocery store on Kalinin Avenue (today’s New Arbat). In Ku! Kin-dza-dza the protagonists include a famous cellist who is quickly dubbed Uncle Vova by a young man claiming to be his nephew who had just arrived in Moscow to become a DJ. This character, Tolik, comes from a place out in the sticks—his native Nizhnie Iamki replaces Soviet Georgia as the provinces in the context of 21st century Russia but, in doing so, also erases the colorful possibilities of Daneliia’s jokes about Georgians that had been a constant feature of his films.

Uncle Vova runs into Tolik when the former is returning home from a solo concert and gets stuck in a terrible traffic jam (a ubiquitous occurrence in early 21st century Moscow). Uncle Vova abandons his cab and begins walking home through the newly built Moscow City, which, with its skyscrapers under construction and a glimmering sushi bar in the distance, looks similarly post-apocalyptic compared to the planet Pliuk where both Uncle Vova and Tolik would be imminently transported. Daneliia sticks to much of the rest of the original plot in his remake but by changing this initial setting, he updates the framing of the film to 21st century realities: Moscow’s present-day landscape, even in animation, looks closer to science fiction than anything Daneliia could have filmed in the 1980s. The opening then prepares the viewer to compare the two films and look for the meanings that accrued to Russia’s realities in the intervening decades.

kuOnce on Pliuk, the earthlings encounter the marginalized traveling artists Uef and Bi (pronounced “bee”)—in the animated version, they are accompanied by a robot, Abradoks—who move about the planet in their flying vehicle, pepelats. Uncle Vova and Tolik make a deal with Uef and Bi who would get them back to Earth in exchange for matches. However, through a series of mishaps, the earthlings have to join Uef and Bi in performing all over Pliuk in order to earn enough money (“chatl”) to make it to Pliuk’s capital city where the coordinates of their home planet—necessary for inter-galactic travel—could be given to them. Along their journey, they are constantly harassed by the powerful enforcers of the Pliukan regime—the “Etselops”—who are distinguished by the blinking orange sirens on their heads and powerful weapons that can obliterate those who cross them.

Uncle Vova’s sensibilities as a classical cellist are soon upset as the local population shows only distaste for the music he plays; his only admirer is a tiny creature who is a “Fitul’ka”—a member of the planet’s third caste which existed in Daneliia and Gabriadze’s original script but didn’t make it into the 1986 film. Tolik, on the other hand, manages to win the hearts of the Pliukans with his careless playing and off-key singing. Despite many disagreements and misunderstandings, the earthlings develop both a liking and an allegiance to Uef and Bi so that when the Pliukan duo is punished by the Etselops, Uncle Vova and Tolik go as far as to compromise their own chances for a timely return to Earth in order to save their friends.

kuUef and Bi, however, sabotage the earthlings’ return plans—instead of Earth, they take them to their own native planet Hanud, which contains only a fraction of the oxygen required for normal breathing. The planet has been abandoned and Uef and Bi hatch the plan by which they will purchase it cheaply together with Uncle Vova and Tolik, then purchase the oxygen to allow for the return of the natives, and consequently become the planet’s co-dictators. (Though this plot element is present in both versions of the film, the proposition to institute a dictatorship supported by the control of a natural resource is a strikingly contemporary proposition given Russia’s current political structure based on the economics of oil and natural gas exports.) Both earthlings, nostalgic for their home planet, refuse the proposition, risking suicide in this low-oxygen sphere, and only the appearance of the interplanetary wanderer who had caused their initial displacement from Moscow to the outer orbits allows them to return back to Earth.

In his interviews about Ku! Kin-dza-dza, Daneliia, who is now in his eighties, says that this remake of his late Soviet classic is going to be his last film. Both the original and the new animated feature took several years to make—and the lag in time between the original conception and the execution made Daneliia nervous, both in the 1980s and in the 2010s, about whether each film would come out.

In both cases, the causes of this anxiety were political. In the 1980s, the shooting started under Brezhnev, continued seamlessly under Andropov, but came to a halt under Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko. The director was faced with needing to re-dub the word “ku”—the most ubiquitous morpheme with a vast range of meanings in the vocabulary of Pliuk—in the almost-completed film because it copied the initials of the new head of state. With Chernenko dying soon after the process of deliberations about how to redub the film without junking most of the existing footage had begun, the installation of Gorbachev as the new Secretary General signaled new problems for the film. Among the foods from Georgia that the young man with the violin brought with him to Moscow (and, consequently, to Pliuk) was chacha, a strong Georgian homebrew. Because the footage of the bottle and of drinking from it was already present throughout the film, the protagonists’ reference to the bottle’s contents needed to be redubbed from chacha to uksus—vinegar—when Gorbachev introduced his anti-alcoholism policies in 1985. Preparing the remake for its release in 2013, Daneliia feared the film might encounter trouble yet again: the leader of the planet Pliuk, both in the original and the new version, goes by his initials P. Zh., which, with the opposition blogger Aleksei Navalnyi’s blessing, became synonymous with the acronym for Partiia Zhulikov—the Party of Thieves—the moniker for Putin’s United Russia party during Russia’s rigged 2011-2012 parliamentary and presidential election cycle.

kuAt the end of Daneliia’s original film, the earthlings, having returned to their home planet, make the familiar “Ku” gesture as a snow-clearing vehicle with its blinking orange light passes by. But they do so with a sense of surprise—they are back on Earth, after all, and the Etselops—P. Zh.’s regime enforcers on Pliuk—with their blinking orange sirens, are a distant memory. At the end of Daneliia’s post-Soviet remake, the newly repatriated protagonists do the same—but, in contrast with an earlier version, they do so without any visible sense of surprise. Coincidentally (because Daneliia copies the episode with the snow-clearing vehicles from his original film) here the director has picked up on another meaning that has accrued in intermittent years: Moscow’s ubiquitous vehicles with government-issued sirens that are allowed easy passage even through the worst of present-day traffic jams to the dismay of regular citizens. Uncle Vova and Tolik’s curtseying to a vehicle with an Etselopian siren solidifies the impression that the planet Pliuk is not too different from Putin’s Russia.

Daneliia himself says as much quite openly in an interview; he sees his remake as allegorically pointing toward the immense gap in today’s Russia between those of means and those living in poverty: “And in general, there is a complete Pliuk in Russia today; Russia is divided between several million Chatlanians and tens of millions of Patsaks” (Daneliia 2012). The transparent nature of this allegory might make Ku! Kin-dza-dza a lesser film than its Soviet predecessor but, oddly, the release of Daneliia’s animated feature goes a long way to reignite the timeliness of his timeless classic.

Sasha Senderovich
University of Colorado at Boulder

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Works Cited

Daneliia, Georgii (2012), “Boius’, chto ‘Kin-dza-dza! Dza!’ mugut zapretit’,” Interview with Valeriia Zharova in Sobesednik 30, 28 August.

Ku! Kin-dza-dza, Russia, 2013
Color, 96 minutes,
Directors Georgii Daneliia, Tat’iana Il’ina
Scriptwriters Georgii Daneliia, Aleksandr Adabashian, Andrei Usachev, with participation from Tat’iana Il’ina and Igor’ Akhmedov
Production Design Aleksandr Khramtsov
Music Giya Kancheli
Voices: Nikolai Gubenko, Ivan Tsekhmistrenko, Andrei Leonov, Aleksei Kolgan, Aleksandr Adabashian, Georgii Daneliia, Igor’ Kvasha, Vakhtang Kikabidze, Alla and Igor’ Sannikov, Margarita Rasskazova, Viktoria Radunskaia, Galina Daneliia, Polina Kutepova
Producers Sergei Sel’ianov, Konstantin Ernst, Leonid Iarmolnik, Iurii Kushnerev, Oleg Urushev
Production Film Company СТВ, Company RITM, Film Company Yurga Film, First Channel
Distribution Nashe kino

Georgii Daneliia and Tat’iana Il’ina: Ku! Kin-dza-dza (2013)

reviewed by Sasha Senderovich © 2014

Updated: 06 Jan 14