By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Confession: When the title KOKO-DI KOKO-DA came up at last year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, I assumed it was some kind of whimsical anime and passed it over. I soon realized my mistake: KOKO-DI KOKO-DA is the polar opposite of lighthearted. The second feature by Swedish filmmaker/animator Johannes Nyholm is a brooding, starkly horrific, deeply metaphorical study of guilt and psychological trauma. After taking Fantasia’s Camera Lucida award and winning praise at numerous other festivals, it sees U.S. virtual-theater release this Friday (go here for tickets), followed by VOD exposure on all major providers December 8, from Dark Star Pictures.
KOKO-DI KOKO-DA (which we review here) takes its title from a traditional French lullaby that is sung in the film’s opening minutes by Mog (Peter Belli), a sinister showman in a white suit who leads a pair of strange followers through a forest. The focus then turns to Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson) and Elin (Ylva Gallon), a happily married couple with a young daughter, Maja (Katarina Jacobson). That happiness is shattered by Maja’s tragic death, and three years later, their marriage is a shadow of its former self. In an attempt to repair their relationship, Tobias and Ylva go on a camping trip in remote woods, where they are assaulted by Mog, Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian), Cherry (Brandy Litmanen) and their ferocious dog. The nightmarish attack becomes a vicious cycle, one in which Tobias repeatedly tries and fails to act–a heartbreaking representation of his inability to cope with the fallout of his and Ylva’s loss.
The film, Nyholm says, is based in his own relationships and fears, as well as those of others close to him. “I know people who have lost a child, and that is also my own worst anxiety, my worst fear,” he says. “It’s so incomprehensibly painful; I can’t think of anything worse that could happen to you. Being a father myself, making the movie was a way to deal with my own fears of loss. In this case, it’s about the loss of a child, but it’s also about a loss of love, or a loss of your relationship–the loss of what you once had. These are things that can be very painful, physically painful. That’s what I wanted to show: It’s not an abstract feeling, it’s very concrete. It’s like a punch in the stomach, or your intestines being drawn out of your body.”
Though that particular act of violence doesn’t appear in KOKO-DI KOKO-DA, Nyholm felt that horror was the proper conduit through which to explore those themes. “I like to play around with genres, and horror is one that gives actual physical sensations to the audience,” he explains. “I enjoy movies or music that can actually give me these sorts of sensations, not just intellectual ones. Here, dealing with horror elements, it was not just to make people afraid–that’s not what I was after. It was more like I wanted people to feel a kind of a pain when they saw it, and maybe relate it to their own experiences, so by the end, maybe I could give them some confirmation that it’s OK to feel like this; it’s OK to be in those dark spots in your life, because there is hope that things will be better.”
The filmmaker, who previously presented a harsh reality touched by fantasy in 2016’s JÄTTEN (THE GIANT), adds that Tobias and Ylva’s tormentors were also inspired by his own experience. He recalls going on a camping trip similar to the couple’s, and having an early-morning encounter with a trio of “strange people” who looked exactly as they do in KOKO-DI KOKO-DA. However, “Even though I would say that everything that happens in the film, I’ve seen with my own eyes, I was in a kind of state where I was half-awake, half-asleep. I witnessed these images presented in front of me; maybe they didn’t happen for real, but I saw them.”
The violence they inflict upon Tobias and Ylva is uncompromisingly harsh, though at times it becomes so heightened that it almost approaches slapstick, in the vein of Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES. Yet Nyholm didn’t intend for anyone viewing it to laugh. “I think it is more disturbing that way,” he says. “They are so irrational, those characters; you don’t know what’s driving them, where they come from or if they’re even real. They seem to have come from a circus or something like that; you can’t quite put your finger on it. And it’s important that you can see that they represent something bigger, even though you don’t really know what it is. They are so iconic in their appearances that you feel like there is some deeper, bigger force behind them, something that you can’t do anything about; it’s just there.”
Reinforcing the interpretation of Mog as a kind of deranged entertainer–at least for some European audiences–is the against-type casting of Belli. Considered the first Danish rock star, he’s had a number of hit records and opened for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in his home country (coincidentally, he released a cover of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in 1968) over the course of his six-decade career. Nonetheless, he was totally unknown in Sweden, and to Nyholm.
“He just showed up in a Google search, his face, and I thought he looked amazing. He has this extreme charisma and energy. He’s been an entertainer all his life, and has this magic air around him, so I realized almost immediately that this was the guy who had to play the villain–if you call him a villain; I refer to him as the old forest gentleman. I knew the character was going to sing this children’s song, but it was a coincidence that the guy who played him happened to be a singer. It feels like this role was actually made for him, even though I wrote it before I met him. It was just a perfect match, like all the main actors were.”
Elaborating on that observation, Nyholm says that both Johansson and Gallon have had experiences they could relate to their roles, which made the film very personal to them. “We tried to use that when we were making the film. I wanted their dialogue to be very realistic, so it was important to me to work with the actors so they could draw from their lives. We tried to portray realistic situations, but then also, at the same time, often very dreamlike scenes, using very long takes and long silences.”
The result is hypnotic and disorienting, and KOKO-DI KOKO-DA possesses what the filmmaker calls “the structure of a nightmare,” constantly pulling the rug out from under the audience’s sense of security. “It’s important to take people to unexpected places, to give them a ride they are not expecting, to tell a story in a way that makes them alert and attentive. Most movies just have the same structure and dramaturgy, and you can see from frame one how they will end. I get quite bored with that, and I believe it’s up to filmmakers to offer other ways to tell a story, to come up with something new. It’s always exciting when I see storytelling done in a different way.”
Nyholm’s most unique gambit is to punctuate the grim reality of Tobias and Ylva’s ordeal with shadow-puppet interludes in which bunnies and birds play out a similar scenario, albeit with an ultimately more hopeful tone. “Those sequences were not there when I was first thinking about the film,” reveals Nyholm, who previously explored the form in his short film DREAMS FROM THE WOODS (an expansion of a music video for the Swedish electronica group Little Dragon). “I added them because the film was so cruel without them, and I wanted to give the audience a little bit of hope, a little bit of poetry. They work rather like a goodnight story or a lullaby to the audience that suggests to them that everything will be OK, life is beautiful after all, love can help you. In the shadow puppetry, I also wanted to convey, for just a few minutes, the way we told stories thousands of years before cameras were invented. It gives a more timeless tone to the film.”
Even with the momentary reassurance that these passages provide, KOKO-DI KOKO-DA remains an unsparing experience, and Nyholm acknowledges that it may be too much for certain viewers. “It’s a film that pushes people’s buttons, in one way or another,” he says. “Some people are really, really affected. One woman cried for hours afterward, and then after that, she said it was like a catharsis for her, and that she felt it was about her life; it was so personal for her. Whereas others can’t stand it, it’s too much; some people leave the cinema, they feel it’s too unpleasant, like it’s torture. It’s quite common that people either love it or they hate it. Either you can relate to it, or you just don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
This article first appeared in RUE MORGUE issue #191.