There are some filmmakers whose styles are so specific that they become easy prey for parody: Wes Anderson has his symmetrical shots and general twee-ness; Quentin Tarantino has his rapidfire dialogue and a tendency towards extreme violence; and Terrence Malick has his fondness for magic hour, hands moving through wheat, and a vaguely overwhelming sense of the world’s scope.
Koko-di Koko-da, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, conveys such an immediate, striking sense of style that it’s tempting to describe it through references. The film, from Swedish writer-director Johannes Nyholm, calls the work of French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Kidding) to mind, as it mixes live-action with puppetry and other similarly strange touches in order to explore the characters’ emotions. There are elements of Lars von Trier and David Lynch at play, too, as the film travels into uneasier territory.
But Nyholm isn’t aiming for pastiche. His film may go on flights of fancy that recall other filmmakers, but Koko-di Koko-da breaks free from any single, concrete association with how firmly it juxtaposes any quirkiness with its increasingly nightmarish proceedings.
The film’s opening sets the tone for what’s to come, as a trio of strange figures — Mog (Peter Belli), a cheery, old dandy; Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian), a plaid-clad goliath; and Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), an eerie-looking woman; plus two dogs, one living and following along, the other dead and in Sampo’s arms — make their way through the woods. Maybe it’s Mog’s demeanor, maybe it’s the dead dog, maybe it’s the fact that they’re traveling in darkness, but there’s an uneasy, almost aggressive energy to them, belying the relatively dainty picture they’d otherwise make.
Even the next scene, which is much less out of the ordinary, toes the line between real and imagined. Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) have brought their young daughter Maja (Katarina Jacobson) on vacation. As they sit at a restaurant, their faces painted like rabbits for no apparent reason, their meal is interrupted by a pair of performers (Stine Bruun and Martin Knudsen) whose shtick falls halfway between clowning and Punch and Judy. The interaction doesn’t last long, but it’s just jarring enough to prevent even the faintest sense of complacency as to what will happen next.
The bulk of Koko-di Koko-da takes place a few years later, as Tobias and Elin go on another trip, but under vastly different circumstances. As they set up camp in the woods, they find themselves in Mog, Sampo, and Cherry’s crosshairs. What follows is straight out of the Groundhog Day playbook: The encounter between them, which takes place in that strange liminal space between night and morning, repeats itself over and over again. The circular events would be dream-like if not for the fact that the trio of supernatural beings are constant aggressors, tormenting Tobias and Elin as they slowly become aware that they must find some method of escape.
The thing they’re trying to work through, however, isn’t actually a supernatural attack: it’s grief. The emotion takes center stage in Koko-di Koko-da, which works implicitly through the way it can twist people, and how impossible it can seem to overcome. And though he’s effective at communicating dread and horror, grief is the most potent tool in Nyholm’s kit.
As the film unfolds, key scenes occur through the use of shadow puppets which seem to be solely for the viewer — until they become a part of the film’s physical world, too. Simple as they are, they’re devastating to watch, especially as they’re laid against Tobias and Elin’s all-too-relatable floundering when it comes to dealing with loss.
The degree to which Nyholm taps into the emotions he’s trying to convey helps flesh out a film that’s otherwise a little thin (it clocks in at just under an hour and a half). At points, there’s a sense of imbalance, as Johansson is given more to do than Gallon; Elin is relegated to being a passenger for a chunk of the film, though when she finally does seize a little agency, it’s to tremendous effect. But, for the most part, the story’s leanness serves it well. There’s no need to get into belabored explanations as to what’s happening, or why it’s happening — emotions are abstract at best, anyway.
Despite being full of fantastical elements, Koko-di Koko-da isn’t defined by them, and in combination with how harrowing and disturbing it becomes at points, the film grows into something that can’t be pinned down in terms of genre or similar works. Nyholm suspends time and space in his illustration of bereavement, veering between dream-like (Mog, Sampo, and Cherry all also appear as cartoons on a rotating music box at one point) and nightmarish (the grotesques’ assault on Elin is always uncomfortably, sexually charged). Comparisons — to Gondry, to von Trier, to Lynch — only serve as road signs, helping us mark Nyholm’s distinct sense of style.