A Cinematic Nightmare Even More Terrifying Than Trump’s America
The Swedish horror film “Koko-di Koko-da” is a visually audacious journey reminiscent of David Lynch that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled.
You can’t fight grief, much less reason with it or attempt to flee it—wherever you go, there it is, preying upon you with little remorse and even less restraint. It’s an omnipresent predator, poking and prodding and mocking you until you just want to scream in anguish. Not that crying out does any good either; in the face of such a sinister adversary, the best one can do is endure, which, Koko-di Koko-da suggests, often requires locating the very thing that’s hardest to find at those painful moments: compassion for one’s self, and others.
As with his prior The Giant, Swedish director Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da is a folklore-y film in which the boundaries between the authentic and the imaginary are flimsy and traversable. However, unlike its predecessor, which made clear formal and narrative distinctions between those two realms, this haunting nightmare blends the real and the unreal until the two are indistinguishable. In that regard, this mesmerizing sophomore effort—think a sinister riff on Groundhog Day, or a bleaker and more wrenching variation of Happy Death Day—is a significant leap forward for the filmmaker, generating unease from its creepy imagery and unnerving signature song, and poignancy from its depiction of the struggle to cope with unfathomable loss.
In virtual cinemas on Nov. 6 (and on VOD Dec. 8), Koko-di Koko-da sets its surreal mood from the outset. In the foreboding woods, a cheery, whistling older gentleman named Mog (‘60s rock star Peter Belli) wearing a white suit and bowler hat, and wielding a cane, sings a nursery rhyme (“My rooster is dead, he will never sing koko-di, koko-da”). He resembles a demented Swedish version of The Music Man’s Harold Hill, and following behind him are crazy-haired young Cherry (Brandy Litmanen) leading a fearsome dog on a leash, and disheveled lumberjack-y giant Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian) carrying a dead pooch. As Mog croons his haunting tune, the film fades to a close-up of a music box decorated with an illustration of this trio, and then to young Maja (Katarina Jakobson)—her face painted to resemble a bunny rabbit – staring at it through a shop window. A moment later, her parents Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Yiva Gallon) arrive, simultaneously panicked over the fact that the girl had wandered off, and relieved to have found her.
In that introductory sequence, Nyholm establishes the aesthetic and thematic foundations of the tale to come, which picks up with the happy family on a restaurant’s dining patio. A comedy duo arrives to entertain a party inside as Tobias, Elin and Maja are served, at which point things take a turn for the unpleasant: Elin becomes pukingly sick courtesy of an apparent allergic reaction to shellfish. Her face swollen, she’s rushed to the hospital, where she quickly recovers. Alas, the morning after her arrival, Tobias and Elin discover—while waking Maja with a birthday song and breakfast, as well as the gift-wrapped music box—that their daughter has mysteriously died overnight.
The first of two animation interludes ensues, both of them gorgeous shadow plays—performed by puppets seen through a flowing gossamer sheet, with kid-drawing landscapes for settings—about two bunny rabbits mourning the death of their child, and a colorfully-feathered bird that resides nearby. Whereas the primary drama is shot with no-frills handheld camerawork, these formally striking sequences recast the material in dreamier terms. And once the film returns to Tobias and Elin three years after this tragedy, things quickly plummet down an Alice in Wonderland-ish hole.
Their dynamic now tense and remote, Tobias and Elin embark on a camping trip. In a random clearing where Tobias has erected their tent, Elin wakes in the early morning needing to pee. When Tobias demands she go outside to perform that chore, Elin complies, and after spying a beautiful white cat in the dark, she’s accosted by the aforementioned music-box threesome. “What have we here? A little lady? Good morning, ma’am,” smirks Mog before whacking her with a cane and compelling his burly compatriot to dance around with her now-unconscious body (to eerie carnivalesque music). Awakened by the commotion, Tobias watches this unfold with horror. After hearing a shot ring out, he too is assailed by the mysterious figures. Caught at gunpoint, Mog teases him about the bullet destined to strike his crotch, and the action freezes into a terrifying tableau of impending death, with Nyholm—in what will become a repeating pattern—cutting to a chilling aerial view of the scene.
And then, after a brief flashback, Koko-di Koko-da rewinds to that same morning, with Tobias and Elin forced to relive their demise. In these do-overs, Tobias awakens with some faint knowledge of the assault to come, although that doesn’t help him fare any better against his adversaries. Nyholm shrewdly avoids providing concrete answers about the nature of this time-loop scenario, instead plunging deeper and deeper into recurring panoramas of suffering and hopelessness, as Tobias and Elin’s every tactic leads to a similarly grisly conclusion. His Dardennes-by-way-of-David Lynch aesthetics amplifying the malevolent atmosphere, the director conjures a vision of endless hellish torment, where no quarter is given by ever-encroaching monsters, and escape and safety are elusive no matter which desperate move one makes.
The longer Tobias and Elin are trapped in this ordeal, the more it seems that the villains are manifestations of the heartache the parents feel about the death of their beloved daughter—and that the only way they can transcend their predicament is by confronting their own (and each other’s) misery. In that regard, Koko-di Koko-da ultimately proves an affecting, symbolism-rich portrait of despair and the estrangement it can breed. Finding a way out of that gloom, Nyholm’s tale contends, involves considerable anguish, a good deal of trial and error, and a brave willingness to see beyond one’s own fury and despondence.
Yet what lingers longest after the film concludes is the unforgettable sight of Belli’s jovial fiend, warbling the title song with a mischievous glint in his eye as he prepares to carry out his unholy business again, and again, and again…