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Posts Tagged ‘Yury Yakovlev’

As part of my general idea to catch up on all the films I’ve got lying around on various formats waiting to be watched, I thought I would have a look at some of the Soviet science fiction movies I downloaded last summer. As I’ve noted, once you get past Solaris and Stalker you really are into obscure territory here, and the same issues come up again and again: you do get a much stronger sense of the debt the western special effects industry owes to George Lucas and ILM, because – certainly once we reach the 1980s – the gulf in technical quality in this area really becomes apparent. Also, Russian film-makers seem to have been even more aware of the potential of using SF to make social and political points, and were very careful to be extra-oblique and even downright disingenuous in order to avoid even giving the impression they were criticising the Soviet establishment.

Both of these things have a bearing on Georgiy Daneliya’s 1986 film Kin-dza-dza!, which on the one hand is an unmistakably Russian film, but on the other appears to owe such a debt to western SF literature and cinema that you can’t help wondering just how much it was influenced by them.

The opening credits roll over a weird, arid alien landscape, but then we abruptly find ourselves in 1980s Moscow, in the company of Vladimir (Stanislav Lyubshin), a slightly cynical but other ideologically sound building site foreman. His wife sends him off to the shops, and on the way he meets a stranger named Gedevan (Levan Gabriadze) who asks for his help in dealing with an unhinged vagrant (Anatoli Serenko). The homeless man claims to be a traveller from outer space and just needs the identification number of their planet in order to get his teleportation device to work. Humouring the man, Vladimir and Gedevan look at the gadget –

– and are startled to find themselves in a desert. The stranger, the other shoppers, and indeed the whole of Moscow has vanished. Based on no evidence whatsoever, Vladimir concludes they have been transported to the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan (he refuses to even consider that they might be in a non-Communist desert) and it’s just a matter of walking to the nearest town. Gedevan is doubtful of his logic but accompanies him anyway.

However, on their journey they encounter a bizarre flying machine resembling an upturned bucket. Upon landing, the craft turns out to be under the nominal control of two of the locals, Be (Yury Yakovlev) and Uef (Yevgeny Leonov). The local language mainly consists of people shouting ‘Koo!’ at each other, but luckily Be and Uef are telepathic and considerate enough to speak to the visitors in Russian and Georgian. It turns out that Vladimir and Gedevan have managed to transport themselves to the planet Pluk in the galaxy of Kin-dza-dza. Luckily, their ship could take them back to Earth (provided they can work out where it is), but in order to do so they will need an expensive and rare widget known as a gravitsapa – and how do they expect to pay for this?

Life on Pluk proves to be unexpectedly complicated, with many subtle details for the new arrival to grasp: the population is divided into two castes, the Chatlans and the Patzaks, with the Patzaks required to show deference by curtseying a lot and wearing a bell on the end of their nose. Social status is further delineated by the colour of someone’s trousers. All of this is enforced by a feared group known as the Ecilops, with the power to tranklukate (whatever that is) offenders or send them to the dreaded Etsikhe (where one is locked inside a metal bathtub for the duration of one’s sentence). Luckily, amongst the most valuable commodities on Pluk are volatile chemicals like the ones in match-heads – so the travellers could be okay, provided they can persuade Vladimir to lay off smoking for a while…

Kin-dza-dza! is one of those films which you watch while going ‘Yes, recognise this bit… yes, this bit is quite familiar too…’: the list of (apparent) influences is a long one. The post-apocalyptic junk aesthetic of Pluk is reminiscent of the later Mad Max films, while the use of a peculiar constructed language or slang (to be honest, the argot of Pluk is so limited it hardly qualifies as a conlang – the whole point of the joke is that the vast majority of words translate as ‘Koo!’) to establish a society also has a distinguished pedigree in SF and fantasy. For me the most obvious reference point, considering this is about everyday Earthmen who find themselves unwilling travellers through absurd alien societies, is Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Stylistically, on the other hand, the film resembles something by Terry Gilliam (working on a very low budget), with perhaps additional help by a well-behaved Luc Besson.

As is often the case, all these disparate influences come together and produce something with a distinctive identity of its own. The film may have been made relatively cheaply, but Daneliya works intelligently within this and the result is a film which is not troubled by obvious over-ambition (there are hardly any special effects shots, but the ones there are – for example, the first appearance and landing of Be and Uef’s ship – are impressively achieved). There is still perhaps something distinctively Russian about the slightly stately pace of the thing (at around two and a quarter hours long, it could easily stand to lose fifteen minutes or half an hour).

Then again, maybe I’m only saying this because western SF-comedy films tend to be light and zippy and not overstay their welcome. Daneliya’s intention is clearly to do more than just raise a few laughs – most of the humour is deadpan and derives from the Earthmen’s responses to what they encounter on Pluk – but to make some satirical points. It would be an overstatement to suggest that this is subtly achieved, but this is part of what Daneliya is trying to say: life on Pluk, and possibly in the wider galaxy, is ridiculous, wildly unfair, and completely arbitrary.

The question is what this satire is aimed at – is Pluk meant to be an analogue of the west, of the Soviet Union, or something else entirely? There are certainly jokes about capitalism in the script – Be and Uef go into a bizarre performance upon first meeting the duo, and Vladimir instantly concludes they are in a capitalist country and will shortly be asked for money – but Vladimir’s own unshakable faith in the Communist system is also the source of some humour. My own feeling is that Daneliya is trying to make a wider point about how all societies must seem ridiculous and arbitrary to outsiders – it is, in a way, the nature of the beast – and perhaps they, and people, really are ridiculous when you consider them objectively. It’s a cynical, philosophical perspective that seems to fit well with the rest of the film’s outlook.

The director makes his points through a solid script that hits all the right beats in the right places, and the leads all provide good performances. As noted, it does go on a bit, and it also displays that tendency of many SF-comedy films to get a bit unravelled in the final act (they introduce time-travel as a plot device, which is never an entirely comforting sign). Nevertheless, you can imagine that this is the kind of film which might have travelled well outside the Soviet Union, but for slightly obscure political reasons (it was suggested that the ubiquitous use of ‘Koo’ was a reference to K. U. Chernenko, the Soviet premier of the day) it was never subtitled in English until many years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Kin-dza-dza! still feels quite fresh and funny today, suggesting its concerns are more grounded in philosophy than politics.

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