This review originally ran in January 2019 after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated to reflect the film’s virtual digital release in America.
Some filmmakers’ styles are so specific that they become easy prey for parody. Wes Anderson has his symmetrical shots and general twee-ness. Quentin Tarantino has his rapid-fire dialogue and a taste for extreme violence. And Terrence Malick has his fondness for magic hour, hands moving through wheat, and a vaguely overwhelming sense of the world’s scope.
Koko-di Koko-da conveys such an immediate, striking sense of style that it’s tempting to describe it through references. The film, from Swedish writer-director Johannes Nyholm, calls to mind the work of French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Kidding), as it mixes live-action footage with puppetry and other similarly strange touches in order to explore the characters’ emotions. There are elements of Lars von Trier and David Lynch at play, too, as the film travels into uneasier territory.
But Nyholm isn’t aiming for pastiche. His film’s flights of fancy recall other filmmakers, but Koko-di Koko-da breaks free from any single, concrete association as it firmly juxtaposes its quirkiness with increasingly nightmarish proceedings.
The film’s opening sets the tone for what’s to come, as a trio of strange figures — cheery old dandy Mog (Peter Belli), plaid-clad goliath Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian), and eerie-looking Cherry (Brandy Litmanen) parade through the woods with two dogs, one living and following along, the other dead and in Sampo’s arms. Maybe it’s Mog’s demeanor, maybe it’s the dead dog, maybe it’s the fact that they’re traveling in darkness, but there’s an uneasy, almost aggressive energy to them, belying the relatively dainty picture they’d otherwise make.
Even the next scene, which is much less out of the ordinary, toes the line between real and imagined. Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) have brought their young daughter Maja (Katarina Jacobson) on vacation. As they sit at a restaurant, their faces painted like rabbits for no apparent reason, their meal is interrupted by a pair of performers (Stine Bruun and Martin Knudsen) whose shtick falls halfway between clowning and Punch and Judy. The interaction doesn’t last long, but it’s just jarring enough to prevent even the faintest sense of complacency about what will happen next.
The bulk of Koko-di Koko-da takes place a few years later, as Tobias and Elin go on another trip, but under vastly different circumstances. As they set up camp in the woods, they wind up in Mog, Sampo, and Cherry’s crosshairs. What follows is straight out of the Groundhog Day playbook: The encounter between them, which takes place in that strange liminal space between night and morning, repeats over and over. The circular events would be dream-like, except that the trio of supernatural beings are constant aggressors. As Tobias and Elin endure a series of torments, they slowly become aware that they must find some method of escape.
The thing they’re trying to work through, however, isn’t actually a supernatural attack: it’s grief. The emotion takes center stage in Koko-di Koko-da, which implicitly works through the ways emotional pain can twist people, and how impossible it can seem to overcome. And though he’s effective at communicating dread and horror, grief is the most potent tool in Nyholm’s kit.
As the film unfolds, key scenes occur through the use of shadow puppets, which seem to be solely for the viewer — until they become a part of the film’s physical world, too. Simple as they are, they’re devastating to watch, especially as they’re laid against Tobias and Elin’s all-too-relatable floundering when it comes to dealing with loss.
The degree to which Nyholm taps into the emotions he’s trying to convey helps flesh out a film that’s otherwise a little thin, even given its short run time. At points, there’s a sense of imbalance, as Johansson is given more to do than Gallon; Elin is relegated to being a passenger for a chunk of the film, though when she finally does seize a little agency, it’s to tremendous effect. But for the most part, the story’s leanness serves it well. There’s no need to get into belabored explanations about what’s happening, or why — emotions are abstract at best, anyway.
Koko-di Koko-da is full of fantastical elements, but it isn’t defined by them, and in combination with how harrowing and disturbing it becomes at points, the film grows into something that can’t be pinned down in terms of genre or similar works. Nyholm suspends time and space in his illustration of bereavement, veering between dream-like (Mog, Sampo, and Cherry all also appear as cartoons on a rotating music box at one point) and nightmarish. (The grotesques’ assault on Elin is always uncomfortably, sexually charged.) The inevitable comparisons to Gondry, von Trier, or Lynch only serve as road signs, helping us mark Nyholm’s distinct sense of style.
Koko-di Koko-da opens in virtual streaming cinemas on Nov. 6, and will arrive on VOD on December 8.