There is, in nature, an expectation of form and function. The seasons bring about growth and change as Earth undergoes a period of refreshment and blossoming before wilting and decaying, only to start it over again with the return of spring. Another aspect of nature is time. It’s far less tangible, requiring humankind’s intervention in order to understand the path of one event unto another throughout history. Unlike the seasons, time is never cyclical, always pressing forward, relentlessly moving toward a new day over and over and over until whatever the end looks like. For his second feature film, writer/director Johannes Nyholm weaponizes time, causing it to loop back on his characters over and again, in order to explore grief in all its terrible aspects via all manner of metaphor. For all of its dreadful aspects involving torture, murder, and degradation, Nyholm’s nightmarish Koko-di Koko-da never terrifies so much as instills wave after wave of endless discomfort.
Three years after the sudden death of their daughter, married couple Elin (Yiva Gallon) and Tobias (Leif Edlund) go on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere as a means of reconnecting. The morning after their arrival, the two are attacked by a murderous trio who catch them both off-guard in various states of vulnerability. With the assailants victorious, a strange thing occurs: time resets and Tobias remembers, though Elin does not. Over and over, the two are attacked and killed with only the details varying slightly. Each time, the song of the trio grows louder and gains greater reach, “koko-di, koko-da, my rooster is dead … my rooster is dead … he will never sing koko-di, koko-da …”
Straight up, Koko-di Koko-da is a difficult film to quantify. Nyholm’s insistence on symbolism over candidness requires the audience to sit up and pay attention, mining even the most remote aspects for meaning. In some regards, this works beautifully. The song at the start, sung by the leader of the unnamed trio, refers to a rooster no longer living. In a variety of cultures, the rooster is a symbol of a new dawn, fortune, luck, or vigilance. Despite the song’s unseemly lyrics, the tone is light and playful, repeating in a manner that will undoubtedly get stuck in your head. The song itself becomes particularly creepy as the singer appears to get stuck, repeating “koko-da” over and over as the sounds of a clock’s gears and chime grow louder. It’s here that the first sense that something is off with the natural order, that the mechanism is broken, and what is presented before us is a warning that what follows will not only be grim but it will repeat, looped over and again. With this opening, the question then becomes whether or not an event will occur which will serve as a reset to fix the gears or stop the chiming of the clock, which goes back to the notion of what the rooster means. Taken one way, the death of the rooster means that morning will never come. Taken another, in consideration of its symbolism, the rooster will crow again. Adding the layers of confusion and madness, there is only one rooster shown in the entirely of the film and it comes in the form of a puppet show, one which is shown to the at-home audience in two parts: one which tells the story of two rabbits whose child dies while riding a rooster’s back and later to depict what the parents do after in their grief. It becomes then up to the at-home audience what the rooster means, what the song means, and the connection to the time loop.
To clarify one thing, Koko-di is not a film about time travel. Not in the way that Groundhog Day (1993), Palm Springs (2020), or Synchronic (2020) utilize a corruption of nature’s flow in order to repeat events or impact the future. Nyholm describes Koko-di’s setting as, “… when dreams are at their most relentlessly untamed,” inspired by the period of the day when the potential of dawn is just out of reach and the things that unnerve us in the night still clutch at us. It’s a tenuous period of reality where our nightmares can exist even as the hope of protection is within sight. This perfectly describes the horror within Koko-di as everything horrible happens when the use of a flashlight to see is only to improve the dull light of the slowly rising sun. For comparison, imagine the horror of Midsommar (2019), which writer/director Ari Aster staged so that the audience always knew what horrors were to come, not just in subtle telegraphing, but in, most frequently, simply telling us well before it occurs. Nyholm doesn’t intentionally alert the audience of terror like Aster, but his storytelling and direction also don’t hide things. Koko-di isn’t about hiding the misery; rather, he gives it form that is seemingly inescapable. Where Koko-di is compelling is how Nyholm removes any sense of safety anywhere, even without the external threat of the trio. The film is about grief, after all, and Nyholm stages his shots so that they feel all encompassing. In the first scene after they lose their daughter, Elin and Tobias are at a gas station, the camera in the backseat as Tobias gets in and out. There is no dialogue that isn’t snippy between the two, the camera locked in the middle, staring straight ahead coldly. It does not move positions so that we see their individual faces, their respective micro-expressions, or any other sense of how they are doing internally. Nyholm just locks the camera, occasionally turning it to track a person leaving the vehicle, but otherwise in place, capturing the emotional distance between the two. The distance between the two is also featured in the costuming: Elin almost always fully dressed, even if partially exposed at times, and Tobias almost always in just his underwear. It’s as though Nyholm wants us to see one as armored and the other as raw, both in pain and not dealing with it together. Through the torments, the audience can only presume how the couple’s respective garments relate to their mental state beyond confusion and desperation, but one thing is clear: even together, the two are terribly alone.
Where the wheels come off the wagon, if you will, is that Nyholm’s script is so devoid of specificity beyond a few things, that the whole of Koko-di Koko-da becomes utterly symbolic. As a philosophical exercise, Koko-di is absolutely nightmarish and gripping; but as a narrative, it lacks a certain cohesion that makes the totality less than the parts. For instance, the puppet show mentioned before tells the story of three rabbits, which lines up with Elin and Tobias as the day of their daughter’s death, the three were adorned with face-paint to look like bunnies. When the story is continued later in the film, the symbolic notion that life continues long past loss is also made quite plain: it’s up to the rabbits to figure out how to go on. It’s even quite lovely how Nyholm’s winding, looping story appears to end where it begins, a metaphorically appropriate approach to the unnatural exploration of nature. But what it all means is truly up to the beholder, requiring that the audience be exactly on the same wavelength as Nyholm and that they understand the danger lurking on the cusp of dawn, the thematic significance of a rooster, and the horror of stillness. Nyholm’s art is at a level that is either too brilliant or too undercooked, which is truly only for the audience to decide.
In virtual theaters November 6th, 2020.
Available on VOD December 8th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.