Johannes Nyholm’s surreal horror endurance test traps a grieving couple in a nightmarish version of “Groundhog Day.”
Here it is, everyone, the least enjoyable movie of 2019. That’s not to say that Koko-Di Koko-Da is a bad movie. It’s a well-made, well-acted, gripping story, but it’s also a grueling experience, right up there with Antichrist and Requiem for a Dream as a film in which getting through it once is more than enough. Even the brief forays into shadow puppetry feel as if they’re about to collapse under the weight of human anguish, and at times it’s a little hard to breathe.
Three years after the unexpected death of their young daughter from an allergic reaction, Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon), still consumed by grief, try to take a camping trip together. Their lost child the only thing that’s still keeping them together, they can barely tolerate each other’s presence. Camping far out in the middle of nowhere, in one tiny tent, seems like an ill-advised idea, but they go largely out of not knowing what else to do. At dawn the next morning, while Elin relieves herself away from the tent, she’s beset upon by a strange trio of people, the sinisterly jolly Mog (Peter Belli), the ogre-like Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian), and the mute Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), who’s carrying what appears to be a World War II-era pistol.
They look like they walked off the set of a David Lynch adaptation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but they’re actually figures from a music box Tobias and Elin’s daughter asked for as a birthday gift, the day before she died. Despite Mog’s cheerful demeanor, he and his small, creepy gang are there to torment them, not even giving Elin a chance to pull her pants up before assaulting and presumably killing her. Tobias, cowering inside the tent, is next, first attacked by the group’s ever present, very hungry dog, then threatened with Cherry’s gun pointed directly at his crotch. The scene holds with an overhead shot that looks like God’s own cold eye watching them, and the audience holds their breath, waiting for the inevitable to happen.
Then Tobias and Elin wake up the next morning, still in the middle of the woods, and Mog and the others return to assault and kill them again. And then again the next morning. And then the next, and then the next. At one point, Elin comes out of the tent, and there’s snow on the ground. For all we know, they’ve been trapped in this cycle of suffering and death forever.
Like in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, grief makes Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers look like pikers.
I’d explain more about the plot, but that’s it, almost ninety minutes of a couple, already emotionally leveled by an unimaginable loss, put through the wringer again and again. If the point of Koko-Di Koko-Da (named for the eerie nursery rhyme that plays in Tobias and Elin’s daughter’s music box) was to portray grief as a sentient being intent on brutalizing everyone it encounters, it succeeds. Like in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, grief makes Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers look like pikers. It knows no pity, it offers no peace. Grief exists solely to destroy.
It’s interesting to note that whenever Mog and the others appear, Tobias tries to hide (often leaving his wife behind to fend for herself), while Elin passively accepts her fate. It’s all you need to know about how they’re actually handling their daughter’s death in reality, and why their relationship appears to be hanging on by a gossamer thread. Koko-di Koko-da is nothing if not clever, and visually arresting, particularly in the aforementioned shadow puppet scenes, in which Tobias and Elin are depicted as rabbits (a callback to the beginning of the film, when they and their daughter are inexplicably wearing rabbit makeup) and grief is a brightly colored, endlessly hooting bird.
Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t occasionally sneaking looks at my phone, wondering when I could stop holding my breath. Koko-di Koko-da feels a bit like being caught in a pressure cooker, where the release valve is only opened a tiny little bit by the end, not enough to let out any of the steam, but maybe the whole damn thing won’t explode. There’s no satisfaction of resolution or relief, it just sort of ends, not with a glimmer of hope but, at best, a thorny, treacherous path leading towards it. It’s a deeply uncomfortable movie to watch, particularly when it takes occasional dives into exploitation horror, as in one repugnant scene involving Mog ordering his dog to assault Elin. It’s a cheap, grotesque moment in a movie that otherwise effectively gets a sense of unrelenting hopelessness across loud and clear.
It seems superfluous to ask if there’s a point to what Tobias and Elin are put through, and to the movie itself. Grief is the point, and clearly they’re going to experience the horror Mog and the others put them through over and over until they figure out the exact right way to fight back. Maybe they will, maybe they’ll just lay down and let it finish them off once and for all. The particularly cruel nature of grief is that there is no “one size fits all” solution, and no guarantee that one it’s been driven away, it won’t come back, even more brutal and relentless than the last time.