Koko-di Koko-da Review
With its creepy woodland setting, sinister music and eerie opening sequence (a mysterious troupe of characters stalking a forest), the world of Koko-di Koko-da is immediately unsettling, each passing moment seeming to foreshadow darker things to come. But even this can’t prepare us for the story that’s about to follow, this surreal Swedish thriller turning one couple’s ordinary camping trip into a nightmarish experience. Turns out this holiday really is going to be unforgettable.
The nightmare started a long time ago for Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) though, the shadowy woods the least of their worries when we first meet them. Still recovering after a tragic accident, the pair are constantly at each other’s throats, the simplest of disagreements turning into the biggest of arguments (like buying the wrong type of ice cream). Spending time together in close quarters certainly isn’t the wisest choice, but they’re willing to risk endless squabbling for the chance of reconnecting, despite the devastating past that can’t be erased. Marital bliss is the last thing on their minds once they arrive though, the couple finding themselves confronted again and again by a menacing group who they’re unable to escape from (in more ways than one). And before they know it, their peaceful retreat quickly descends into a terrifying ordeal of bizarre proportions.
It’s here that Koko-di Koko-da becomes so much more than a simple thriller in the woods, writer-director Johannes Nyholm unravelling his plot in an almost dreamlike way as Tobias and Elin try to make sense of what’s going on. Yet Nyholm keeps his narrative grounded in reality by exploring rich themes of grief and guilt throughout, using the situation the pair find themselves in as an allegory for the past they can’t leave behind. With the addition of that ominous woodland setting and caricature-like villains (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian plays a sort of giant while Peter Belli is the epitome of Rumpelstiltskin), Koko-di Koko-da is very much a fairytale coming to horrifying life, that moralistic plot familiar to us, yet given greater depth by that contemporary spin.
Nyholm even uses shadow puppets at some points, the images of bunnies and a colourful rooster (whose melodic call is the ‘koko-di koko-da’ of the title) looking like they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of a children’s storybook. It’s an incredibly effective technique that is beautiful to watch, but also surprisingly disturbing, those innocent motifs reflecting the tragedy Tobias and Elin have faced, and warning them what might happen if they fail to confront their issues with each other.
And yet, there’s something about Nyholm’s approach that means his narrative isn’t as engaging as it should be, the latter half quickly losing all tension when Nyholm reveals what’s going to happen to the couple. While those fairytale tropes work well and are impressively woven into the main plot, other parts are weighed down by the film's many ideas and themes, with every single moment seeming to be symbolic in some way – as if Nyholm is constantly nudging us to make sure we’re definitely getting it.
The mix of drama and horror is also jarring, the emotional subtlety of the first scenes (which are genuinely heartbreaking) disappearing later on as things take a turn for the weird and terrifying. Having the two side-by-side makes us realise how much we miss the realism of the early parts – of a couple simply stuck in their own grief and unable to talk to each other about it. That’s certainly a lot more powerful than anything Tobias and Elin are about to face in those woods. Nyholm’s over reliance on violence in these later moments sadly only confirms that he knows this too, much of it feeling unnecessarily cruel (especially when the more horrific acts are so often aimed at Elin) and like a cheap way to keep us watching when his story becomes repetitive.
While it’s undoubtedly flawed, there’s still a lot about Koko-di Koko-da to admire. The atmospheric imagery and immersive sound design are both wonderfully effective, Nyholm using each to pull us into the nightmare alongside Tobias and Elin. And Simon Ohlsson and Olof Cornéer’s eerie score is superb – a haunting soundtrack that you’ll want to revisit. But overall the narrative is lacking, the tension lost early on because of certain plot points, and the emotional realism pushed aside when the weirder elements are introduced. And, despite some great performances from Edlund and Gallon, we sadly just don’t care what happens to the characters, the ending leaving us cold and dissatisfied.
Koko-di Koko-da is released on September 7 exclusively on BFI Player, with a special introduction by film critic Mark Kermode. The film will also be released on Blu-ray and digital.