Koko Di Koko Da (2020)
Written & Directed by Johannes Nyholm
I’ve recently tried to pin down what specific type of horror that resonates most with me. I know people who love over the top gore and what veers into comedy. Others enjoy the haunted house jumpscare ride experience. The horror I am drawn to is often based on human grief and is a slow burn. It doesn’t fall back onto cheap spooks and actually delivers horrifying moments that sink in and stick with the viewer.
Hereditary, Midsommar, and The Color of Space are more recent examples. The Shining is a more classic representative. Horror as an expression of the interminable sting of loss hits me like nothing else. I am both left in a sense of bleak sadness and overjoyed to see someone able to articulate those emotions on screen. Koko Di Koko Da is most certainly a film about grieving and the nightmares we place ourselves in when we can’t find a way out of that dark space.
Three years ago, on vacation, Swedes Tobias and Elin experienced massive tragedy. They still haven’t recovered and have grown colder & more bitter towards each other. They are on the verge of divorce now. To commemorate their loss and to try and see if any love still exists between them, Tobias and Elin embark on a camping trip in the rural woods of Sweden. Early the first morning, something disturbing happens. Elin goes out to relieve herself, and a trio of grotesque figures emerges from the forest. A man in a boater hat and white suit wielding a cane, followed by a man and woman who are mute and dressed up as children creep out into the open. These figures do horrible things to the couple, but then Tobias wakes up. It was just a dream? However, the morning starts playing out just like his dream. Soon, he realizes he and Elin are trapped in a looping nightmare they cannot escape.
Koko Di Koko Da plays out like a twisted fairytale aided by these three villains’ appearance and some beautiful shadow puppet sequences. If you are expecting sadistic explicit gore, that’s not what this film is. Though brutal things happen to both Tobias and Elin, we are spared the gritty details, which in some ways make the dread sink in even worse. There’s never an explicit attempt to explain why this is happening to them, but we can infer it’s some sort of psychological or karmic fate linked to their inability to move past their loss. The figures never explain they are there to teach a lesson to the couple; they just go through a series of motions, adapting as Tobias tries to subvert their attack.
The only thing the film points to as a possible explanation is that these three characters appear as paintings on a child’s toy glimpsed at the beginning and end of the film. The toy is a music box that plays the titular song and shows the boater hat man leading the two children. It’s a much more pleasant portrayal than we see when they manifest in real life. There are implications that this is a prison of Tobias and Elin’s own construction, as seen in a second shadow puppet show Elin stumbles upon. She continually glimpses a white cat just before encounters with the deadly trio. In one instance, she follows it deep into the woods, coming across a cottage, evoking images of Brothers Grimm tales. Within is a red curtain that parts to play out a metaphor of what these two people have been doing to each other.
I’ve seen some takes that this is a nihilistic movie, but I couldn’t disagree more. The final scene plays out as a variation on all the dream loops we’ve seen before with a significant difference. Whereas each dream ended with a bird’s eye view shot of the carnage wreaked by the deadly psychos, that final scene ascends higher and higher. Tobias and Elin have come to their lowest moment, and in that space, instead of fending for each other, they finally reach out, and something is released, years of pain in silence. The nightmare isn’t going to repeat this time because they have finally allowed each other to see their mutual suffering. Something will be different after this.