Koko-Di Koko-Da. 2019. Directed & Written by Johannes Nyholm.
Starring Peter Belli, Leif Edlund, Ylva Gallon, Katarina Jakobson, Morad Baloo Khatchadorian, & Brandy Litmanen.
Beofilm / Film i Väst
Not Rated / 86 minutes
Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers
What would the tamer portions of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist look like fused to the endless day Bill Murray’s weatherman is forced to endure in Groundhog Day? If that’s not something you’ve ever thought of, you’re in luck— director-writer Johannes Nyholm has envisioned exactly that with his latest film, which had its Canadian premiere recently at the awesome Fantasia Festival in Montreal.
Koko-di Koko-da is a surreal nightmare that begins wtih Elin (Ylva Gallon) and Tobias (Leif Edlund) experiencing a life altering loss when their young daughter Maja dies suddenly. Three years later, the married couple continue to struggle. They’re growing apart, each dealing with their child’s daughter differently, and neither have allowed themselves to truly heal.
Their relationship and lives are put to the test when they go on a camping trip and a trio of sideshow performers— Mog (Peter Belli), Sambo (Morad Khatchadorian), and Cherry (Brandy Litmanen)— wanders out of the woods, forcing them to either succumb to the forces pulling them apart, or face their grief head on to extinguish it forever.
Nyholm uses surrealism to play out a scenario for Elin and Tobias where they have no choice but to confront their grief. The couple’s encounter with the three sideshow maniacs is a terrifying exercise in how trauma repeats itself, revisiting its pain upon the inflicted until they’re able to come to terms with it. Elin and Tobias can either come together to deal with the gaping wound in their lives, unless they want to be lost to the damages of grief forever.
“He will never sing
The story is a modern fable about grief / trauma and how they can test us on a daily basis. Nyholm’s surrealism works its magic by dropping Elin and Tobias into an allegorical battle against the sideshow troupe, who’ve literally jumped right out of the past— the trio are the same as the cartoon characters on the music box Maja’s holding above. The couple endure recurring visitations from the troupe, as everything around them clings to the memory of their little girl, like it physically follows them everywhere.
Several specific symbols makeup the lexicon of Nyholm’s twisted tale. The music box itself is an important symbol, not solely for the three characters. “The Rooster is Dead” song is sung in a round, just like the music box itself is repetitive. These repetitions play into the theme of recurring trauma, as Elin and Tobias go through grief in rounds exactly like “The Rooster is Dead” is meant to be sung.
Another symbol is the white cat. In certain parts of Europe, they’re said to be omens of bad luck, as opposed to the North American superstition of black cats as being the unlucky ones. The animal emerges from the woods only to either lead the trio of psychos towards Elin and Tobias, or, at one point, to take Elin through a dark stretch of trees to a lonely theatre where a puppet show replays, step-by-step, the painful loss of their daughter. It’s a messenger, relaying the fact grief and trauma are about to come round again.
Apart from individual symbols, Nyholm embeds Koko-Di Koko-Da with an overall theme of performance. The act of performing is consistently at the fore. Early on during Maja’s birthday, the family witness a performance by an amateur duo, acting like the typically exaggerated caricature of a bickering man and wife, also connecting with the later state we find Elin and Tobias in three years after their daughter dies. Then there’s the idea of performing grief / healing, and the performance of ‘being okay’ for the outside world / those around us. The initial conversation we hear between the married couple after the three year time jump has to do with their disparate sense of healing. They’ve each got their own ideas about what it means to perform grief and how that’s supposed to look.
Finally, and most significantly, the sideshow troupe of Mog, Sambo, and Cherry are the epitome of performance, looking like they’ve stepped right out of an old fashioned carnival. They transform the couple’s tent into a Big Top, where their sadistic, carnivalesque, psychosexual games are played out. Their whole existence within the surreal, allegorical context of the plot is to make Elin and Tobias metaphorically perform their trauma over and over.
“Violence is violence.
Trauma is trauma.
And we are taught to downplay it,
even think about it as child’s play.”
— Tarana Burke
After their daughter dies, Elin and Tobias split apart over the three years prior to their camping trip. We see this reflected via the surrealist encounter with Mog, Sambo, and Cherry. The couple both experience their own version of the horrific events, illustrating how far their marriage has deteriorated due to an inability to resolve their grief. The husband goes through repeated acts of violence, getting brutalised himself or having to watch on in cowardice while his wife is humiliated and murdered.
On one hand, Elin’s separate experience involves an isolated walk into the woods by herself where she faces crippling doubts about her role as a parent. On the other, Tobias symbolically has his manhood threatened, whether it’s him running from danger leaving his wife to be terrorised and worse, or if it’s Cherry— perfectly, the only woman of the trio— pointing a loaded gun at his genitals threatening to castrate him, figuratively emasculating the father who feels he wasn’t able to save his daughter and who now likewise can’t protect his wife, either.
Elin’s creepy trip to the forest theatre performance is almost scarier than her husband’s moments of repeated violence. She wakes up to winter, though the rest of the movie takes place in summer. This stark image of the frozen woods is frightening because of its implications. The sudden appearance of winter makes clear that the married couple’s damaged relationship is perpetual, through all seasons.
Unless they can shatter the cycle by coming together as one rather than existing apart.
Gradually, the couple start to see what’s happening. In the end, they don’t exactly escape the troupe. They do make it away from their hellish campsite, showing growth in their grieving measured by how much closer they manage to get back towards civilisation and away from the forest’s isolation. On a stretch of road, they run down the dog we see Sambo carrying around dead earlier, implying an even more complex, convoluted time loop than it appeared to be originally. Unlike before, Elin and Tobias embrace one another— the most physical contact we’ve seen them share since they were in the hospital, right before their daughter died— and Nyholm suggests they are, at the very least, on the right path towards banishing their traumatic grief.Koko-Di Koko-Da will definitely not be to everyone’s tastes. It isn’t a slow burn, it’s quite literally a repetitive series of events bordering on absurdity. If the viewer’s unable to connect with the allegory within Nyholm’s surrealist screenplay then the repetition will grow old fast. For those able to grasp hold of the film’s themes and find they resonate with them, they’ll be treated to an interesting, if not uncomfortable contemplation of how grief can drive us away from those we love.
Overbearing pessimism in Nyholm’s film belies its final glimmers of hope. One message is clear: we cannot run from the emotions threatening to destroy us, because, in many ways, it will only end up destroying us in the end. Like the nursery rhyme “The Rooster is Dead” going on and on in a perpetual round, grief and trauma may never stop. Our best hope is to learn to live with these emotions and figure out how to lessen their damage, in spite of whether we can actually ever wholly escape them.