“Our rooster's dead, our rooster's dead,
He'll no longer sing kokodi, kokoda,”
Koko-di, Koko-dull… that was dreadful, but then again so was my soul-shattering disappointment at this film. Actually, maybe I need to take it down a notch a little; after all, there was no real cause for such intense optimism for this Swedish Surrealist Fantasy/horror by Johannes Nyholm. Also, 'dreadful' is a bit much... It’s just that I love myself some off-beat horror, the less-mainstream (apparently) the better. I had seen the trailer once or twice for Nyholm's film. Maybe eyed the cover of the Blu-ray even more so, taken as I was by such a freaky, yet simple piece of poster-play. The rest was likely my own fabrication. Or not.
Following tragedy, a couple goes on a trip in attempt to reconnect. Whilst camping deep in the woods, a dapper gentleman all in white emerge from the trees, accompanied by a bizarre entourage including a silent woman, a giant man, a dead dog and a louder, more alive one. In a series of humiliations, psychological tortures and mischievous games, the characters wreak havoc on the couple.
Screened at the Sundance Film Festival to a relatively positive reception in 2019, Koko-di Koko-da looked to be another addition to the often scorned breed of high-brow horror that has graced the silver-screen in the last few years. It’s a genre that panders to me, once a Slasher chick, I have to take the stigma on the chin now that I have become massive snob now when it comes to horror cinema; I am of the Hereditary kind of pretension and I love it. Described by some as a Funny Games meets Groundhog Day, that would suggest that Koko-di Koko-da was as good as either of these; it isn’t. Compelling though the premise seems the format grows tedious rather quick. There are only so many ways to be terrorized in a clearing, or so the film shows.
Spliced with genuinely interesting puppetry to convey the psychological and emotional journey of the couple, in fact the very thing that prefaces the main body of the story, it only leads to more disappointment. Once we’re in the woods, it proves to be the least engaging part. On top of this is an attempt at black comedy that does little to amuse or discomfort instead falls rather flat (having just come of a self-indulgent splurge through Julia Davis’ BBC series Nighty Night, I have a whole new respect for the genre). Script or performance, the sense of humour in this piece fizzles out where it claims to revel in it most, its first act carrying much of the advertised sharpness.
The nursery rhyme sung by the creepy side-show artist, and the melody produced by a rather narratively significant music box, lends the film its interesting title and adds to an air of discomfort if for a time. But this could only build so much atmosphere before even I forgot the significance of the tune and the film lulled into its intentional repetition. Technical choices are made that overall robbed the film of tension in some of its more intriguing moments. It also, in attempt to seem off-kilter, a little other-worldly, possibly through the use of manipulating frame-rates or some snazzy editing, had a tendency to look kind of ugly. Was this also intentional? At this point, one can make any excuse for art but we have to be frank about some things.
Not to say it was all terrible. Its first thirty minutes are genuinely engaging. Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier that would then explain my severity on its final hour. The set-up is some good stuff. In fact, the humour can be found here; in the exchanges between the couple, the wife’s food-poisoning, the later argument about ice cream flavours. Their faces painted as cartoonish rabbits, the tragedy that followed was genuinely hard-hitting to watch whilst uncomfortable. If that tone had been maintained, I could rate this as a film worth remembering.
With these early scenes, and a pretty good final scene that ties it all up nicely – gosh is it a slog to get there though – I could see the merits in its portrayal of a couple in crisis. It explores grief in a unique way with the concept that if you can go back and change one thing, would it make any difference at all. This gimmick makes for incredibly compelling storytelling, to relive events and alter it and learn from it and ultimately find it fruitless in each attempt is the human calamity that makes for true nightmares. It is our perverse desire to regret. But Koko-di Koko-da does not manage to grip with this concept; its talons are too blunt. Maybe this would have benefitted from being a short film.
I liked the fixed camera in the car, the headlights lighting the way when they turned off the road and weaved their way through the trees along the little used path. The appearance of the white cat, the way the forest looked at night, which the cinematographers best moments were captured, the initial isolation that certainly enhanced the atmosphere briefly were all interesting at first. Honestly, there were plenty of little things to like bookending the experience.
It’s the sort of film I really want to love. A fable like tale interwoven with a stark examination of grief, metaphors and fantasy shrouding the harsh reality of the subject matter as it creeps into unsettling worlds. I love Swedish cinema, too. Sweden has an incredibly fascinating film repertoire, not to mention the vast and rich folklore they often exploit to marvellous effect. It’s hard to not think of the works of Ingmar Bergman or Victor Sjöström, or latterly Roy Andersson or Lukas Moodysson when recalling some truly fantastic filmmakers (I am so sorry that I can’t think of any great female directors…). Though often bleak, they can take the rich culture of their country and examine the state of the human psyche, pushing it to the extremes in various fascinating ways. Ya see? I had some really high hopes.
It is a frustration I felt throughout the film and this review. I wanted more and never got it. I wanted to love this. The spectator should always be guessing, a step behind the story they’re seeing and maybe that was the case here. Following the storyteller into the forest at first was fun, but it became rather obvious that there wasn’t much to see the deeper we went, the trees were all the same, the vegetation was sparse with not even a freaky-looking toadstool to snap a picture of and before I knew it we had both been wandering in unintentional circles. I have nothing against woodlands, have in my time trod many and found each one uniquely compelling, but it’s easy to grow bored when you’ve seen the same stump a hundred times.