Similarly to a recent Oscar contender, director Johannes Nyholm explores the downfall of a marriage in his new, surreal film Koko-di Koko-da. Elin and Tobias are first seen happy as can be on a holiday, but after a tragedy, their marriage takes a turn. Elin becomes hostile towards Tobias, who simply doesn’t know how to be a better husband and the pair are stuck in a rut of grief and aggression. The pair go on a camping trip to try and mend their relationship, but things go horribly awry as the couple are stalked by a trio of mysterious, aggressive figures. The couple are stuck in a cycle of abuse from the trio, like a bizarre version of Groundhog Day.
Koko-di Koko-da is a strange beast. A film that is thoroughly engrossing, but also off-putting, an oxymoron of sorts. Its themes are affecting and universal but there is something about its approach that doesn’t allow you to get a grip on the emotion behind the narrative. It pulls you in just to push you away again, never quite settling on a tone or mood. It’s darkly funny, but laughing feels particularly wrong in this case.
Nyholm has away with visual though. Koko-di Koko-da is first and foremost a visual treat and it offers several frames that could double as paintings. Nyholm employs a God-like perspective at the end of every vicious cycle of abuse he puts poor Tobias and Elin through, ending the cycle on a shot from above, looking down on the characters and their attackers. The shot comes with a sense of doom and perhaps pity, a sort of inevitability after we witness Elin and Tobias get attacked and humiliated again and again.
Koko-di Koko-da, although almost completely bloodless, often feels vile and barbarous. This is both a criticism and a straight-up compliment. Koko-di Koko-da is a clearly a horror film and it’s truly horrifying and guaranteed to make you wince at least once or twice. It feels dangerous and reckless, something that doesn’t torture its characters for spectacle. There is plenty of violence and more often that not, it’s sexualized, giving Koko-di Koko-da an especially unpleasant feeling throughout.
We witness a dog licking urine off the ground and later between Elin’s legs and much emphasis in placed on how one of the attackers has trouble aiming the gun at Tobias’ manhood, as if to imply it’s too small to find. Tobias also grows more and more violent as the cycles repeat and while neither learns much from the events, Tobias hysterically tries to save Elin, failing time after time and we are forced to observe how they both are humiliated and tortured time after time.
But it’s precisely because of this unflinching brutality that Koko-di Koko-da is so effective. It doesn’t treat its violence as entertainment, but as something to ponder. The effects of every despicable act are felt and we are right to feel uncomfortable by it, this shouldn’t be enjoyable because it certainly isn’t for the characters. While the cyclical narrative becomes a little tiresome, the film contains two cases of sublime shadow puppetry. The first is at the beginning of the film and the second towards the end and both are simply perfect. Paired with Simon Ohlsson and Olof Cornéer’s music, these scenes are gentle and emotional, so much so that I would have loved to watch a whole film with just the little puppet family.
Both Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon do fine work as Tobias and Elin. Their fragile, mostly bitter relationship feels authentic and familiar, almost lived in. A simple argument over an ice cream hits terrifyingly close to home. Peter Belli, Brandy Litmanen and Morad Baloo Khatchaorian are all approapriately menacing with barely any dialogue. Belli is the only one to speak and does so often with the titular nursery rhyme or similarly sunny, but threatening sayings.
There are many flaws to be found in Koko-di Koko-da, but it also does a lot right. It loses some effectiveness with its repetitive narrative, but it also packs a mighty punch. It’s a surreal and abstract experience, a film that is better once you’ve had some time to digest and process it.
Dir: Johannes Nyholm
Scr: Johannes Nyholm
Cast: Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon, Peter Belli, Brandy Litmanen, Morad Baloo Khatchaorian
Prd: Johannes Nyholm
Music: Simon Ohlsson, Olof Cornéer
Country: Sweden, Denmark
Run time: 86 minutes
Released exclusively to BFI player and also on Blu-ray and digital from 7 September