Director: Johannes Nyholm
Stars: Ylva Gallon, Leif Edlund, Peter Belli
We use fairy tales to relate the seeds of dark ideas not spoken in front of children. Complex issues are masked behind wonderful and terrifying adventures. This act of burial and subterfuge is fascinating in itself; as much a window into human tendencies as the make belief being spun. What’s buried doesn’t remain so forever.
A grieving couple, Elin (Ylva Gallon) and Tobias (Leif Edlund), drive into the depths of the Swedish woods. They’re on the road having recently lost their daughter Maja (Katarina Jacobson) in a bizarre food poisoning incident; a misadventure that also featured face paints, an air-ambulance ride and a rendition of The Birdie Song. Against Elin’s wishes, Tobias pulls off of the main road onto a rough track through the trees so that they can set up camp for the night. But the dawn brings stranger terrors to their oasis in the wilds.
Koko-Di Koko-Da is a genuine oddity in the modern cinematic landscape, most easily described as ‘folk-horror’, but even this feels misleading. ‘Folk-horror’ brings with it the loaded implications of The Wicker Man, Kill List, Blood on Satan’s Claw or Czech odyssey Valerie and her Week of Wonders. None of these name-drops will lead you into Johannes Nyholm’s film with the right set of expectations. Not that there’s a desirable way to approach what’s in store. There is no primer for this.
Elin and Tobias are set upon – repeatedly – by a bizarre troupe who happen on their camp at daybreak. Led by a boater-hatted man named Mog (Peter Belli) who brandishes a smartly punishing cane, the absurd trio taunt and belittle our grieving couple over and over as events in the woods start to cycle. Horror has toyed with the time-loop several times in the past decade or so – Triangle, The Endless, Happy Death Day – but this doesn’t feel like another iteration of the same. Indeed who’s to say it’s time that’s cycling. Sleep is a common motif here. Could these be Inception-style dreams within dreams. Whatever, the sense of spiralling entropy is potent and as scary as the repeatedly violent encounters.
Each cycle plays out differently, but all are ill-fated. The need to urinate persists each time (so make sure you’ve gone before you start this journey!), while Mog and co’s villainous and slapstick exploits seem maddeningly without motive. And just when you start assuming predictability, Koko-Di Koko-Da manages to reinvent itself. Yet there is method to this madness, as the strangely cathartic final crank of the wheel reveals. A kind of temporally-disrupted balancing act is working itself out. Elin and Tobias might not be as guiltless as they initially appear.
Given the film’s opening stretch – taking pains to set context – guilt seems intrinsically connected to Elin and Tobias’ woodland experiences. Liking this couple isn’t something we’re particularly engendered toward. In particular, Tobias’ stubbornness, inaction and frequent cowardice flies in the face of movie-going expectations. It is, however, all the more human and perhaps, ironically, the most grounded and ‘real’ element here. From Elin we get even less, aside from a sense of irate devastation and the constant need to pee – itself the lead for a puerile if well-earned visual gag.
This is all without mentioning the two literally show-stopping shadow-puppet theatre shows(!) that occur during the film.
These plays within the play – two acts of their own story – are beautifully rendered and stirringly scored. Here, two rabbits attempt to gain vengeance on a brightly busheled bird that causes the death of their young. The parallels to the main story are too brazen to ignore (flashback to those face paints…), yet the method is elliptical, conjuring a feeling of jaundiced secrets and a mad-hatter’s sense of humour in the telling.
Perhaps the nearest simile for Koko-Di Koko-Da might be Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. A couple in the woods, striving to find compromise to assuage their own guilt and grief. Nyholm does like to get in close with his actors, and the camerawork here has the rough-shot (pun intended), almost haphazard quality similar to many Von Trier titles. This stylistic tic abuts the shadow-puppetry sequences, which feel meticulously constructed and framed in comparison. It all makes for a fittingly lop-sided, wonky cinematic encounter, one both maddeningly outside of your grasp and refreshing for it’s singularity.
Maybe clutching for comparative works is simply a fools errand in this case. An attempt to find a compass baring while the dial is spinning. It’s not often you come across a true original. This is certainly a singular experience. Quite how you feel tottering away from it will, frankly, be up to the individual. But isn’t that always the way? So take the score below with a pinch of salt. This one might take a little time to reveal its true quality.