Sucheta Chakraborty

IFFR 2019: Koko-di Koko-da review

★★★★☆

In Swedish filmmaker Johannes Nyholm’s second feature Koko-di Koko-da, three bizarre characters from a children’s music box come to life to haunt a grief-stricken couple as they try to escape from a nightmarish cyclical maze of a scenario which unfolds each time in the middle of a forest.

In an interview, Johannes Nyholm described how the idea for the film came to him late one night in the brief twilight state between wakefulness and sleep and that is precisely the kind of world Koko-di Koko-da ends up occupying. Borrowing its title from a nursery rhyme, which is sung from time to time more to terrify than to soothe, and much of its elements from children’s folk tales including a trio of strange figures (Peter Belli, Morad Baloo Khatchadorian and Brandy Litmanen) who inexorably come to torment in the middle of the night, the film structurally also absorbs the repetitive patterns, symbols and hidden clues typical of fairytales.

After the opening glimpse of its three nightmarish monsters ravaging through the forest with a dead pig in hand and a fierce dog in tow, the film settles into one of its few daylight sequences and plants its first clue. Parents Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) rush to meet little Maja (Katarina Jakobson) who has been staring through a shop window at a rotating and tinkling music box. The family is on vacation in Denmark and we learn from the parents’ reactions that Maja had run away. While this time, the reunion with Maja will lead to some happy moments with the family sharing a meal together at a restaurant, the daughter’s temporary absence and the parents’ ensuing panic foreshadows darker events to come.

Koko-di Koko-da’s shadow play sequences which have a sad, ethereal beauty of their own are positioned in the film both to offer brief periods of respite from the claustrophobic and bitter human drama and also to function as further clues. The stylization in these sequences with their graceful interplay of light and shadow attempts to temper the painful reality even as the use of animal puppets and symbolism to convey the human story only ends up underscoring the magnitude of the tragedy that unexpectedly hits the couple.

It is however the film’s s unrelenting time loop that Tobias and Elin find themselves trapped in during their camping trip that forms its dramatic centre, takes up the most time and space and unravels through its compelling visual and temporal metaphor the emotional repercussions of loss and grief in the characters’ minds and lives. It begins each time with Elin waking up needing to relieve herself and ends with the couple killed by the prowling trio, the final moment of defeat itself framed every time through a faraway, high-angle shot. With each cycle, the characters become increasingly aware of their impending fate and try, with mounting dread and desperation, to escape it.

Tobias and Elin’s individual feelings of abandonment, loneliness, guilt, anger and resentment towards each other are all enacted in the different scenarios and through the slightly varying approaches they take to flee, from driving off in the car to hiding in the tent hoping to go undetected, but all with the same unfaltering ending. Nyholm’s greatest triumph in Koko-di Koko-da lies in the way he drives home his story’s emotional weight through particularly cinematic means.

Sucheta Chakraborty