Sweden/Demark (2019) Dir. Johannes Nyholm
I have to apologise in advance for any glibness in this review because Koko-di Koko-da is one of those surreal arthouse films heavy on symbolism that exposes ol’ MIB as a bit of a thicko, since I was unable to follow everything that was going on.
On a holiday in Denmark, tragedy strikes Swedish couple Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) when their daughter Maja (Katarina Jakobson) dies on her eighth birthday from an allergic reaction to eating shellfish. Their marriage gradually becomes strained in the aftermath, with the couple being on the brink of divorce. On the third anniversary of Maja’s death, they commemorate the date with a reconciliatory camping trip.
However, on the first night when Elin needs to relieve herself, she is attacked outside the tent by three strange people – Mog (Peter Belli), a creepy man wearing a white suit and boater, the hulking mute Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian), carrying a dead terrier, and Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), a tall woman with a terrier on a lead. Tobias is also killed by the trio whilst hiding in the tent, but then time suddenly resets and Tobias relives this scenario over and over again, falling each time to change the outcome.
The odd title of this film comes from a line in a Swedish children’s nursery rhyme entitled Vår tupp är död (Our Rooster’s Dead), referring to the fact we will never heard the crow of the deceased fowl anymore. As much as we underestimate how surreptitiously sinister nursery rhymes can be, director Johannes Nyholm appears to be looking at how we underestimate the destructive power of holding onto our grief.
Nyholm is not a director I have heard of before, but it seems he is among that cadre of Swedish filmmakers for whom boundaries exist for everyone else. Maybe not as absurd or oblique as Roy Andersson, there is a sense of the abstract here that feels designed to provoke as much as bewilder, given the bleak subject at hand. Audiences will therefore be divided by those who get it and those who won’t (hello!) and ne’er the twain shall meet.
People handle grief in different ways and Nyholm presents us with a loving couple bereft of that love with their daughter gone. They bicker over the slightest things, can barely look at each other, and feel hopeless, something that has festered for three years. Prior to this, Maja was their world yet it is ironic Elin was the one to suffer the violent reaction to the mussel pizza and was hospitalised, but this didn’t stop Maja being the one to lose her life to it.
Maybe Elin felt some direct responsibility for Maja’s death since Tobias was unaffected, this isn’t elaborated on when we jump forward three years to the camping trip. One thing we do know is that Maja’s birthday present was a music box, the tune for which is the aforementioned nursery rhyme. This becomes more relevant at the end of the film when the origin of the three mystery antagonists is revealed, although this doesn’t offer any explanation for their violent actions.
Groundhog Day Scandi style is deeply unsettling and apparently motiveless, with Mog’s cheery sadism, Sampo’s wilful acts of bodily harm, and Cherry’s wild-haired appearance giving off witch-like vibes, except her weapon of choice is not a wand but a gun. Along with the bloodshed, the other recurring theme is Tobias steering clear of the trio until he is caught, leaving Elin to suffer first, but the elliptical nature of this nightmare means Tobias is actually aware of this happening, and tries to alter the events with each reset.
How do we know this is tied in with their grief? Nyholm adds a silhouette puppet show to the proceedings that features a family of rabbits who suffer the exact same tragedy as Tobias and Elin, albeit with fairy tale twist. Initially, this seems like more abstruse weirdness to baffle the viewer despite the clarity of the allegory, but again its purpose isn’t confirmed until later on when Elin is lead to an empty playhouse by a white cat to watch the second half of the presentation.
Running just under 90-minutes, Nyholm ekes out what is a seemingly threadbare plot with subtle shifts in the layers of the symbolism, dropping little clues here and there which are open to interpretation. For me, I took the white cat as being a reincarnation of Maja, who didn’t want her parents to fight so she tries to direct them to the best way to release their grief and mourning for her.
Whether the three psychos are working for her or independently of her, my take is they represent how the grief is continually torturing Tobias and Elin and tearing them apart, physically and emotionally. This would be the more obvious of the two metaphors but that doesn’t make it any less immediate in associating them with the main themes if you happen to enjoy a linear, uncluttered narrative in your films.
Since there is a lot of repetition, Nyholm freshens things up a little by filming duplicated attacks from different angles or focusing on something else like Tobias hiding, instead of simply repeating the same thing. This makes it more interesting for the cast meting out the violence too, whilst leads Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon have their hands full with the heavy drama and relaying the emotional strain of their characters.
Ultimately, Koko-di Koko-da is a frustrating film because after reflecting on it, there is an interesting and creative dissertation on holding onto repressed emotions, yet we are left to wonder why Nyholm had to be so obtuse with it. Maybe it is a Scandinavian thing, but something also missing is the audience’s emotional connection with Tobias and Elin, where sympathy for them is superficial at best.
Definitely not a film for everyone but certainly a fascinating approach to a grim topic if you like challenging cinema.