Starring Peter Belli, Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon
Written by Johannes Nyholm
Directed by Johannes Nyholm
Grief and trauma are having a moment in horror. Recently, Hereditary and Halloween (2018) have made a splash in their navigation of the moments and feelings for which there are no words. Johannes Nyholm’s Swedish-Danish genre straddler Koko-di Koko-da continues the heartbreaking trend, loosely blending Happy Death Day‘s structure with Don’t Look Now‘s temperament.
Patriarch Tobias (Leif Edlund), mom Elin (Ylva Gallon) and daughter Maja (Katarina Jacobson) are on a lovely European holiday. At least, they seem to be having fun; from inexplicable bunny makeup to a pair of raunchy vaudevillian performers, the family’s dining out is peppered with a sense of uncanny unease. After a brutal allergic reaction, Elin is in the hospital. As she recovers, she gently chides her husband for freaking out so badly at the first sight of her, which made her freak out in turn. “You should have kept your cool,” she says. It’s a hint towards the couple dynamics that come back to haunt the pair later on. In a macabre sequence of beautiful restraint, the pair discover that Maja has died overnight, apparently from a delayed reaction to the same seafood that made Elin ill. Three years later, a visibly strained Tobias and Elin embark on a camping trip in order to gain closure and salvage their threadbare relationship. Instead, they find themselves cornered in a neverending fugue-state night terror, hosted by sideshow villains Mog (Peter Belli, donning a white suit), the towering Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian, with a massive dog in tow), and Cherry (Brandy Litmaen). Koko-di Koko-da is a Hans Christian Andersen story, as adapted by Lars Von Trier.
The trio quickly reveal themselves to be the parents’ grief incarnate, trapping them in a surreal time loop in which, much like processing the loss of a loved one, there is no right answer and everything is awful. Each repetitive morning brings its own hellish scenario, distilling the pain of discovering their dead child into a terrible new sensation. Tobias hides; they find him. He tries to flee; they catch up to him. He tries to put up a fight; they win. Every cycle in which the grotesque group get the best of the couple ends on a fatal freeze-frame, seemingly trapping the perpetual ordeal in amber before reverting back al Coda.
Co-cinematographers Johan Lundborg and Tobias Hoiem-Flyckt realize Nyholm’s unforgiving vision and let that vision unfold in the frame, rather than flogging the dead horse with over-the-top metaphors. The composition often has its two main subjects enveloped, whether it be by claustrophobic tent or the dense, isolating treeline. Icy blue palettes in the dream sequences drive home the frigid desolation of mourning. Lundborg and Flyckt’s quiet attentiveness to the forest glade pays off when the slightest interruption (a snapping twig, an animal sighting) becomes dreadful. Any given frame is a gilded page from a Grimm fairytale book.
The filmmaker doles out objectification in equal measure, with Tobias and Elin each on the receiving end of desperate, disgusting torment. One scene, in particular, involving a thirsty dog is sure to raise hackles, and while effectively confrontational, it’s a ham-fisted metaphor for Tobias’ emasculation issues. In fact, it briefly seems like the film goes for a Last House On The Left feel, lingering on Elin’s bodily suffering and humiliation while the camera and Elin’s cowering husband look on. But where Wes Craven goes for brutal Vietnam-reverberating verite, Nyholm stews in the elements that make up a bad trip: swaying, prolonged takes, and tension crescendos that bubble from the pit of the stomach upward. Visual cues have each at their most vulnerable: he without clothes, and she fighting the urge to use the bathroom. The writer/director’s most unexpected tricks include a POV switch between the protagonists, and an entire storytelling change-up: a shadow puppet show. Both keep the plot path from veering toward the well-trodden, and each builds toward a bleak but ultimately hopeful ending.
Koko-di Koko-da fires for maximum effect, building dread in the kinetic moments and terror in the silent moments. Johannes Nyholm successfully incorporates the molasses dread of Angst with Antichrist‘s nihilist dive down the rabbit hole in a stellar, beautiful allegory for the Sisyphean struggle that those left behind endure, long after the funeral.
Koko-di Koko-da is refreshingly unforgiving in its unpacking of the ways that grief betrays us. Every dread-filled moment holds the audience bound and gagged, praying for the nightmare to end.