Swedish filmmaker Johannes Nyholm follows his 2016 arthouse debut feature The Giant with the similarly ambitious Koko-di Koko-da. The latter, a nihilistic horror drama, explores the damaging impact of repressed grief and failures in communication through unsettling folklore and horror conventions. The result is a unique beast that distresses and tugs at the heartstrings as Nyholm blends varying unorthodox cinematic styles with intriguing narrative devices.
Koko-di Koko-da opens with a shot of a sinister circus troupe marching through Scandinavian forestland. An older gentleman in a Tom Wolfe-esque inspired suit, a wild-haired young woman carrying a handgun, and a giant juvenile man carrying a dead dog. This disturbing sight soon becomes a recurring element throughout the feature. We are also introduced to Tobias (Leif Edlund), Elin (Ylva Gallon) and their young daughter – the perfect family. However grief strikes Tobias and Elin after the sudden death of said daughter, launching them into a spiral of grief. Nyholm’s feature then deviates down an unorthodox route as we pick up some years later when Tobias and Elin embark on a camping trip which leads to their own demise at the hands of the sinister circus troupe in brutal, humiliating manners. The couple are forced to relive this in an unsettling Groundhog Day inspired circumstances.
Playing out like a contemporary Grimms’ fairy tale, Koko-di Koko-da’s underlying themes are the failure to express grief and the damaging effect that this has on our protagonists. Beginning the narrative as the perfect family unit – the trio are seen in a restaurant celebrating the daughter’s eighth birthday before her sudden death. This marks a rapid end to the cheery carefree tone which soon deviates down a darkened path. We see the fractured couple some years on arguing about ice creams whilst headed on a camping trip – a brief moment capturing their less than rosy relationship – which also marks the arrival of the film’s unorthodox repetition-heavy narrative structure.
The circus trio’s arrival is usually signalled by the motif of a white cat – an early indicator of the couple’s impending humiliating demise. Nyholm directs these macabre scenes with a slow and tense dread, the villains tormenting their victims with an almost gleefully pleasure. There’s a sense of lingering unease, particularly as the narrative’s repetitive structure begins – we know that Tobias and Elin are likely to meet their demise, but exactly how, Nyholm changes each time – the characters being more worn and preempting their fates. Yet this does not make the gleeful way in which the curious trio execute the couple any less distressing or uneasy – with Tobias and Elin often powerless in their demise.
Nyholm mixes a range of visual styles in this unsettling fairy tale – with the narrative feature interspersed with puppet-show style animations. Filled with child-like drawings the protagonists are often depicted as a rabbit family, torn apart by distress. These animations are surprisingly emotive, capturing deep sentiment in their admirable childlike simplicity.
Nyholm has crafted a rich, symbolic experience with Koko-di Koko-da packed with societal commentary channelled through the its rich, striking and unsettling imagery. The trio of villains each likely to have their own folklore-centred meaning, generally feel somewhat representative of the destructive grief separating and draining the life from Elin and Tobias. There’s also a slight comment on the concept of masculinity that can be interpreted in Tobias’s often powerless stance – his first run in with the murderous troupe sees the wicked woman point a gun at his penis in a lingering, tense moment, whilst often repeated sequences see him watching his wife or child’s demise as a powerless bystander.
Koko-di Koko-da is a hugely interesting examination of the distress and rippling effects of grief. Pairing this highly-emotive subject matter with distressing horror conventions and a unique grasp of folklore, helps the feature stand out as a massively original and bold cinematic piece.
Koko-di Koko-da is available now.