“Our rooster’s dead, our rooster’s dead/He’ll no longer sing 'koko-di, koko-da.'”
The morbid nursery rhyme at the heart of Johannes Nyholm’s second feature certainly foreshadows all the nihilism ahead. If you’ve ever wondered how Michael Haneke would tackle Groundhog Day, then Koko-Di, Koko-Da is the movie for you. Just don’t go in expecting many life lessons to be learned along the way.
Unlike most time loop films, where the key to escaping is often tied to some form of self-improvement (either emotional, intellectual, or both), Koko-Di, Koko-Da rejects this core concept entirely, arguing that repeating the same events over and over only makes things worse. It might not be as fun as a Bill Murray comedy, but this Scandinavian thriller is arguably the most honest take on the subgenre so far.
Warning! Spoilers ahead for Koko-Di, Koko-Da, which debuted on VOD earlier this month.
Written, produced, directed, and even edited by the Swedish auteur, this disquieting labor of love starts innocently enough. Eight-year-old Maja (Katarina Jakobson) is enjoying a birthday meal with her parents (Ylva Gallon and Leif Edlund) complete with rabbit face painting, wacky children’s entertainers, and a still-wrapped gift that she chose herself from an antique store.
Even her mom Elin’s allergic reaction to shellfish and an airlift to the nearest emergency room can’t quell the jovial mood. “In goes my wife and out comes Freddy Krueger!” Tobias jokes about his wife’s unfortunate physical transformation as the pair playfully recollect the day’s events under the covers. However, the next morning this picture-perfect family is cruelly torn apart with the discovery of a dead body. And it’s not Elin’s.
The parents’ howling realization that Maja has suffered a fatal, and delayed, allergic reaction while asleep in the next hospital bed is so palpable that you feel like you’re intruding. Yet as the screen mercifully fades to black, the nightmare is only beginning.
We next see Elin and Tobias (well, the backs of their heads, anyway) three years later and on the road for an unplanned camping trip. As they bitterly squabble about mundanities such as buying the wrong ice cream, it’s clear that the tragedy has pushed their marriage to breaking point. “You don’t even know where we are, you just keep on going,” Elin later yells as the pair struggle to find somewhere to pitch their tent. She could just as easily be referencing the aimlessness of their relationship.
Despite eventually settling in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, the couple soon discovers they have unwanted company: there’s Mog (‘60s Danish pop idol Peter Belli, brilliantly subverting his real-life persona), a bowler-hatted, white-suited man prone to cheerful whistles and sinister chuckles; Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), a wild-haired old woman walking a dog that’s very much alive; and Sampo (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian), a brutish Andre the Giant look-alike carrying another that’s very much dead.
First teased in the cold open, these are the curious characters who embellished that antique music box Maja selected before her untimely death. And over multiple terrifying groundhog days, they’ll subject her grieving parents to an unrelenting wave of dread, humiliation, and torture that ultimately leads to their deaths.
Employing the time loop device to relive such murderous events is nothing new, of course. The enjoyably ridiculous Happy Death Day franchise (alpha college girl must discover who keeps slaughtering her), last year’s timely The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (African-American gay teen gets shot by trigger-happy cops again and again), and Tom Cruise’s late-career best Edge of Tomorrow (alien-fighting soldier lives, dies, repeats) have all effectively adopted similar premises in recent years.
Koko-Di, Koko-Da, however, takes the premise to sadistic and surreal new levels. There’s no rhyme or reason for the shocking violence the fairytale trio inflict on Tobias and Elin every time the latter wakes up to pee. And on each occasion, the victims appear equally helpless to stop them. In fact, Tobias — who spends half the film in nothing but his pants — only seems to get more cowardly, leaving his petrified wife to fend for herself as he hides in their tent or attempts to flee by car. It takes what seems like an interminably long time for any mistakes to be rectified.
https://www.sundance.org/images/filmguide/2019/19776-2-1100.jpg Three nightmarish nursery rhyme characters come to life. Beofilm.
With each time loop producing very similar results (a symbolic change in weather comes as a welcome relief), Koko-Di, Koko-Da will inevitably test some viewers’ patience. The overwhelming tension sparked by the couple’s opening encounter with the misfit trio has certainly subsided by the fifth repeat.
Yet approach its inherent strangeness in the way Nyholm intended — an intense fever dream rather than a linear psychological horror — and it’s easier to succumb to its hypnotic qualities. Cinematographers Tobias Höiem-Flyckt and Johan Lundborg sure add to the sense of disorientation, bathing all the woodlands scenes in a twilight-hour mist and concluding each act of depravity with a lingering, visually arresting aerial shot, as if the action is being watched over by a godlike presence.
There’s also a hypnagogic element to Olof Cornéer and Simon Ohlsson’s unsettling music box-like score and the eerie hand-drawn animated sequences which echo Tobias and Elin’s hellish predicament. You wouldn’t want to spend a minute in Nyholm’s inherently unsettling world but you can’t deny how effectively it’s been built.
To truly escape it, the protagonists must learn that teamwork is key when it comes to evading a bunch of metaphorical sadists. And as the pair comfort each other for the first time, perhaps not quite understanding why, the relentless darkness they’ve been plunged into finally offers a glimmer of light.
But as you’d expect from a film determined to make them suffer, there’s no unmitigated win. Nyholm isn’t interested in sending his characters on the familiar time loop journey of crystal clear enlightenment. Tobias and Elin are the same emotionally damaged couple at the end of their camping trip from hell as they were at its beginning. Their daughter is still gone and their marriage may still be beyond repair.
It’s a brave move which will no doubt frustrate viewers who feel they’ve been put through the wringer just as much as the leads. Yet given the subject matter, it’s perhaps the only truthful take on the time loop so far.