Horror is universal. I’ve reviewed several horror films on Shudder recently that highlight how personal genre filmmaking’s become—including Hunted (2020) and Lucky (2020), which both involved women enduring inexplicable and repetitious violence presented through fragmented perspectives. Horror movies are at their best when abstract because real life horror’s seldom incomprehensible, and I certainly didn’t understand the minutia of Koko-di Koko-da, so haven’t decided if the answers are worth the effort.
The story follows an estranged married couple going through the motions after the devastating loss of their child. Much like Lucky, Tobias (Leif Edlund) and his wife Elin (Ylva Gallon) have become trapped in a hallucinatory cycle of absurdist torment, which forces them to confront their own internal abuse in order to progress. I can only assume they do as this film leaves even major plot points up for interpretation. Getting to know these characters is a challenge; not only because writer-director Johannes Nyholm intentionally foregoes giving them unique personality traits in order to keep them ‘relatable’. We’re introduced through such a strange establishing lens, too, with them and daughter Maja (Katarina Jakobson) in face-paint, as buck-toothed performers entertain at some gathering.
Nyholm seemingly wants us to find parallels with the introductory scene of the three travelling show-folk in the woods, singing the titular nursery rhyme. Everything here is performance: a literal play acted out which dovetails with the striking shadow puppetry segments, yet contrasted by cinematographers Tobias Höiem-Flyckt and Johan Lundborg, who float around the family with Terrence Malick-like camerawork. I didn’t get anything satisfactory out of this narrative, but Koko-di Koko-da is a tremendously confident sophomore feature on a technical level.
This grounded perspective settles in as Elin’s hospitalised by a sudden allergic reaction. Continually concerned that Maja ate the same food, Tobias puts on a happy face to downplay growing panic. Maja later dies in her sleep. Three years later and the two are on their way for some truly miserable camping involving mosquitoes, rain, and the aforementioned carnival wanderers who come across their tent. Catching Elin literally with her pants down, the strangers verbally taunt her, knock her unconscious, and dance with her limp body… all while Tobias watches from inside the tent. This is the moment when I turned on Koko-di Koko-da, as Tobias is one of the most cowardly, ineffective, and useless protagonists I’ve seen in a long time!
Deliberately so, one imagines. I can only imagine that Nyholm wanted to present a realistic portrayal of someone becoming paralysed with fear, as he Tobias is so overcome by the absurd brutality he faces. Koko-di Koko-da is also a work of fiction and this character becomes a detriment to enjoying it. But it’s also a surprise time-loop movie, so surely the point is that Tobias will learn from his mistakes and save his wife to become a hero?
Waking up in the same situation, Tobias recalls a strange dream of him scurrying into a separate compartment of the tent to hide. So yes, that’s right, he again keeps quiet while the tormentors abuse his wife a second time, only for him to be caught soon after. Koko-di Koko-da is described as a horror-comedy, and it’s clear Nyholm sees Funny Games (1997) as a key inspiration, but there’s nothing funny here. At least in Michael Haneke’s movie both characters have equal opportunity to resist their captors, bu Elin never has a chance to comprehend what’s happening, let alone defend herself. It’s too frustrating for gallows humour.
The moment that sealed my distaste is the loop in which Tobias desperately grabs a knife and sprints to the car, only to yell at his wife to stay in the tent. Hours of silence go by as the tormentors finally arrive and, as they always do, abuse his wife before attacking him. Again, I reluctantly recognise what Nyholm is aiming for; Tobias feels disconnected because his wife and daughter went through something together and this is reflected in him being unable to save his wife. This is all a nightmare for him, and in dreams it’s difficult to behave rationally. But at the same time, we also have to emphasise with these characters and their grief, but his repeated actions are morally repellent. I wanted to see cowardly Tobias die and poor Elin escape, but that isn’t the story being told. Whenever she dies I’m just waiting for Tobias to get on with the next cycle.
Elin does get her moment but it’s far more abstract. While this is the reprieve I was desperately asking for, it frustrated me on several levels. The storytelling is almost entirely separate from the looping narrative Tobias has been suffering, as an older Elin (Katrin Willberg), a white cat motif, and the shadow puppets are far removed from what’s been the crux of the film. Abstract horror of the type made by David Lynch have held a precarious balance of feminist/misogynist in how they explore their female characters through horrific cruelty, and Koko-di Koko-da teeters haphazardly. The distinction in artful expressions of grief are a rudimentary binary of men dealing with objectives and obstacles, while women cope using poetic concepts of the issues. Elin was the one who almost died alongside her daughter, why doesn’t she receive any autonomy?
The three demented killers in Koko-di Koko-da form a toxic family unit in the vein of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) clan. The elder ringleader Mog (Peter Belli), in his white suit and boater hat, barks playful orders at his mute ‘children’, Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian) and Cherry (Brandy Litmanen). Their unquestioned obedience is exactly the same as Elin as she gets dragged into the car without any inclination of what Tobias has been experiencing, except Cherry learns how to aim a gun from Mog and Elin learns absolutely nothing. Perhaps her older self is thinking back on this bizarre event and coming to terms with it, but in the present we just have an obstinate husband, some pissed pants, and a dead dog. Nyholm shows promise writing their arguments early on, but he regurgitates this perspective that when communication inevitably breaks down and the only solution is for reclaimed masculinity. If this one-sided delusion was meant to save their marriage then Koko-di Koko-da ends with an antagonistic relationship between two characters, and myself and the film.
SWEDEN • DENMARK | 2019 | 89 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | SWEDISH • DANISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Johannes Nyholm.
starring: Leif Edlund, Peter Belli, Helle Andersen, Stine Bruun, Tanja Craemer & Ylva Gallon.