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Fantasia 2019, Day 14: Koko-di Koko-da

Friday, September 6th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Koko-di Koko-daThere was only one film I planned to watch on July 24, and that was writer-director Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da. It promised to be a strange movie about characters trying to break out of a time loop, and I settled in at the De Sève Theatre wondering at the horror elements implied by the film’s description in the festival catalogue.

It’s a little difficult to describe the plot of this movie without giving away a major swerve at the end of the first act. But: an opening section introduces us to the happily-married Tobias (Leif Edlund Johansson) and Elin (Ylva Gallon). Then we see tragedy strike, and after an interlude with shadow-puppets we skip forward three years to the main part of the movie. Tobias and Elin are on the verge of separating, sniping at each other as they set out on a vacation together. They end up camping overnight in the woods, and in the morning are attacked by three vicious wanderers: the brutal giant Sampo (Morad Khatchadorian), the sinister Cherry (Brandy Litmanen), and a short ringmaster named Mog (Peter Belli). With them is an attack dog. Tobias and Elin are killed — and then Tobias awakes at dawn and the whole thing begins again.

We eventually come to understand what is happening here, and roughly why. The conclusion ties up the loop in an interesting mobius strip of causality. And one of the loops follows Elin instead of Tobias, producing an unusual resolution. But there are problems here.

Before I get to them, I want to note what the movie does right, and how I read what it’s trying to do. To start with, it looks very nice, and it’s shot with a strong eye for point-of-view. The woods are a place of dread, not just dark but cold and damp. The more joyous early part of the movie is bathed in light, brighter in atmosphere, but still with an almost subliminal sense of weirdness.

Character is the driver of the film, and the basic sense of who the leads are is very strong. This is not true of the wanderers, but that’s fine; their purpose is to drive events, to put stress on Elin and Tobias. I am not sure that the dramatic structure really helps bring out the interaction and relationship of those two. But then again the film seems to aim at establishing them less through dialogue and more through a close observation of their actions — not just what they do but how they do it, their every shiver and every wild glance.

Koko-di Koko-daThere is a conscious theatricality to the film, but it’s not necessarily what is usually evoked by the word. This is closer to theatre of the absurd (with moments of grand guignol), and the time-loop format plays to that style. I’m not sure the movie ultimately ends in the meaninglessness of the absurd, but that is the effect for much of the film’s brief (86 minute) run-time.

Yet while there are interesting elements in the film’s construction, it ultimately did not work for me. And the reasons start, frankly, with the way it handles the time-loop structure. It’s an approach, or subgenre, that has become incredibly common in recent years. We’ve grown to accept protagonists who learn every beat of the loop they’re trapped in and manipulate it; we’ve grown to accept that we don’t need to see every single iteration of a loop. Koko-Di Koko-Da ignores that kind of sophistication of genre. Rather than give us a loop that heroes try to solve, it gives us a seemingly hopeless situation that ends the same every time, across only a half-dozen or so iterations, apparently without skipping any.

The sensibility’s very different, then, which is interesting, but by trying to move away from plot mechanics the film undercuts the basic structure of the loop. There’s even one iteration that begins with snow on the ground — one iteration with snow, and one only, snow not so far as I could see caused by anything any of the characters did in the previous loop. In other words, the movie violates one of the basic aspects of its structure, the idea that the characters begin again in the same place every time. Sometimes you can break a rule and get away with it. In this case, the breaking of the rule feels like sloppiness, like a deliberate lack of interest in narrative.

Koko-di Koko-daI will note that I’ve heard that some people had a problem with Tobias’ less-than-heroic actions. He theoretically could attack the three wanderers and their dog, instead of escaping, as he usually tries to do. I don’t think that would make sense — he’s outnumbered, they have a gun, they have a dog. There’s not much he or Elin can do; that’s the point, I’d say. But along these lines it’s worth noting that the violence in the film is fairly extreme, down to a scene of sexual violence, and while that’s not inherently a problem it’s baffling when we find out what force has apparently caused the loop.

Finally, I have to say that in my reading the opening section doesn’t hook up to the rest of the story on more than a basic plot level. That is, I don’t see much in the way of visual and thematic echoes, so that the opening act — shot so differently, with a different emotional landscape — feels like a different movie. There are disturbing theatrical performers in those scenes, perhaps a little like the three brutal wanderers, but their connection to the people in the woods is too distant to really work.

Overall, Koko-di Koko-da (the title comes from a nonsense song repeated in the movie) has the sense of a film trying to tell a symbolic and artistically ambitious story on top of a genre structure. The first problem is that not all the symbols work, not all the way through the movie. And the second is that the genre structure’s mishandled; it’s almost rudimentary. I don’t think Koko-di Koko-da is a good film. But I have to say that it’s much better than most bad movies, and perhaps more memorable than some good ones.

Find the rest of my Fantasia coverage from this and previous years here!


Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. You can buy collections of his essays on fantasy novels here and here. His Patreon, hosting a short fiction project based around the lore within a Victorian Book of Days, is here. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

7 Comments »

  1. I suppose you might have been expecting this comment. I disagree with a number of your assertions, and would go so far as to say that “Koko-di, Koko-da” was my favourite film of the sixty-three movies I saw.

    Working as I am in framed windows, I’m going to try to start a conversation here, addressing the first issue that is encapsulated with your lines, “In this case, the breaking of the rule feels like sloppiness, like a deliberate lack of interest in narrative.”

    This is in reference to the “snow” appearing in one of the loops. Having benefited from watching it a second time (at the second big-screen screening), and having taken copious notes, I can state with a fair degree of confidence that this is no sloppiness, and is not breaking any rules.

    During the first four iterations, it’s very clearly Tobias’ game to lose: we see things from his perspective, and he’s the one who has the chance to (albeit a vanishingly small chance) to try to save the pair. On the fifth iteration, with the snow, the focus is on Elin, who emerges from the tent, snow on the ground, the car crashed on to the side of path, and in her attempts to extract the vehicle from the muddy rut, she sees the white cat in the side-view mirror.

    Following it, she comes across a small building, set up for an audience of one to witness the film’s second shadow-puppet animation. Now, among the odd things (the snow, Elin-focus, and re-appearance of the cat), the clearest change is Elin’s age as she watches the dumb-show. She is obviously (at least) ten years old than before, making it almost as if she’s watching a “history” as she sees the collapse of love between the shadow bunnies.

    That in mind (and I’ve more to say, if prompted), it feels to me like this iteration is almost certainly “not real”, as in, a dream. After the attempts of Tobias (and we are given to believe that while Elin is experiencing her “dream”, he’s still trying to work through — and failing at — his own iterations), the film-maker puts the onus of saving this relationship more-so on Elin.

    Tobias is established fairly early on as an affable, loving guy — but one lacking in pyschological fortitude (as exhibited by his frantic reaction to his wife’s allergic reaction in the opening scene). So he will always do his best (proffering, for example, an “I love you” in an attempt to quell the spats in the car before the camping trip; trying to “jokesy” his way through awkward interactions and emotions), but he can only do so much. His heart is in the right place, but he can only attempt to solve this problem in his own way; while those efforts aren’t necessarily productive, at least they grow increasingly admirable.

    So with Elin, in her “dream” (or alternate time-line iteration, doesn’t matter), is forced to realize that yes, the loss is devastating — and she hasn’t accepted it yet. But she also is forced to realize that what she has with her husband existed before the child, and is worth hanging on to. The vision of her ten-year-future self, appearing in the glimpses given all cold and weary, prompts her “present” self to drop the unfounded hostility against someone with whom she was once very much in love and does not have any reason (at least none provided in the story) to abandon this love on the altar of her bitterness.

    The final iteration goes differently because of their Mutual efforts. We can see that this would have gone on as long as necessary, for the sake of the daughter’s “soul” (or whatever you want to call her post-corporeal presence) with the shot of her spinning the music box at the end, its (now) haunting image bleeding into the closing credits as the children’s chorus of the titular song begins.

    While I respectfully disagree with your interpretation, I found “Koko-di, Koko-da” to be immensely moving and enjoyable the first time around, and to be self-consistent (and as such, much more narratively impressive) the second time around.

    Furthermore, I was impressed at how “down the middle” this struck our gang of five after the first go-around. You and Agustin not liking it, but respectfully so; me and Alice having loved it; and Gabriela seeming genuinely split and unsure about her own feelings concerning it.

    I look forward to your feedback. (And will take this opportunity to boldly throw in a link to my review that posted the day after the second screening: https://366weirdmovies.com/list-candidate-koko-di-koko-da-2019/)

    Cheers!

    Comment by Giles - September 7, 2019 11:53 am

  2. (Just a quick edit for the line, “ten years old than before”; it should read, “ten years Older than before”)

    Comment by Giles - September 7, 2019 12:01 pm

  3. Hi, Giles. Sorry I’ve been slow to respond; it’s been a surprisingly frantic couple of days. (Good link, and good piece, in case I didn’t say it before!)

    I agree with you that the fifth (snowy) iteration is Elin’s try. What I didn’t get — and maybe you picked up on something I didn’t — is why the film shifted to her for that go-round when it had been staying away from her POV since at least the first go-through. I mean, in practice Tobias took himself out of things early on in that version of events, but does that matter?

    I also still don’t get why there’s snow in that one version. I could just about buy that Tobias crashed because of the snow. But … why snow? I was trying to figure out if there was a link between the white snow and the white cat, but couldn’t come up with anything. Then again, I couldn’t think of any other meaning to the cat, either.

    I largely agree with your reading of the ending, and how their mutual efforts solve things. I also agree that the shadow-show is meant to set up that ending, and I admit I didn’t notice Elin was older while watching the shadow-play. That does explain why she’d see it as a retrospective.

    What I don’t understand, I suppose, is why she’s meant to be more responsible for saving the relationship. I thought both she and Tobias had sympathetic and unsympathetic moments. I’d specifically say I found it hard to feel for Tobias after the way he drove like a maniac through the woods, apparently more interested in spooking Elin than anything else.

    I also felt the ‘explanation’ of the daughter at the end was weirder than it seemed at first. I mean, she was basically condemning her mother and father to death multiple times over. Which … it seems a weird choice, to me.

    But I do think this is a film that has a lot going for it. For me the negatives outweigh the positives, but as you say it was interesting seeing how it affected different people differently. Like, everybody had obviously seen and reacted to basically the same movie. But different things struck different people with more weight. Which is an interesting lesson in audience reactions, maybe.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 9, 2019 9:23 pm

  4. Hey guy. I hope your frantic activity’s been sorted; don’t worry about the delay here.

    I would have to watch it again to fully address your valid points here. I will suggest, though, that the end bit with the top probably wasn’t done for sheer bloody-mindedness of the dead daughter. I viewed it more as a grim, but necessary necessity: the daughter had to force these re-iterations on her parents over and over until all the gears clicked correctly. A kind of trial by ordeal, working out as a very unpleasant “Groundhog’s Day”.

    Oh yes! The mother, Elin, wasn’t wholly responsible for saving the relationship; she just was able to be reached for a more mature (for lack of a better phrase) perspective. I found Tobias deeply flawed, but still loveable (and, when not riddled with angst or fear, charming). This is a trait that Elin could presumably have known when she married him, and certainly would have known (and been, as we saw, generally happy with) having raised a daughter with him for all those years. He struck me as a moment-to-moment kind of guy; someone who could learn, but never quite could commit to glimpsing a larger picture. I don’t think of that as a problem for someone (I myself generally side-line the “larger picture” to avoid getting overwhelmed with the folly of existence, for example), but its definitely a characteristic he has, a characteristic she accepted, and one she lived with for a long time.

    Also, it’s made clear early on that Elin is the stronger of the two, and as such there is a responsibility on her part to shoulder the part of the burden that her husband couldn’t.

    As for the snow, I don’t have an explanation that could really be considered “good”. It worked plot-wise and visually, which, considering how I feel about the rest of the movie, is enough for me. (That, and I suspect further viewings might illuminate more — whether this “legend” and “folksong” are made up or not, there is a whole lot of mysticism going on.)

    I know a major problem for other viewers was being put through the grinder so often, with a pay-off they felt inadequate. I wasn’t so adversely affected by the cruel streak, and that perhaps helped me have a better reaction to the climax. Interestingly, I spoke with two people who had experience with loss in recent memory. One felt very strongly that “Koko-di, Koko-da” was exploitative and callous, and that it was a shame the film-maker did what he did; the other felt that the film-maker had perfectly captured the abyss of grief and the struggle required to come to terms with loss.

    …and over a month after we saw it, we’re still talking about it.

    Comment by Giles - September 9, 2019 10:54 pm

  5. “…necessary necessity”. Forgive me. I’ve been up too long today. Where’s my editor?

    Comment by Giles - September 9, 2019 10:57 pm

  6. Snow scene: I remember now specifically how I interpret it. To me, it suggests a time jump forward, indicating that poor Tobias has been slogging through his hopeless task for months. When they arrive at the area they camp at, it’s late summer at the earliest. In theory, he could have been going through his doom over and over, never quite surmounting the difficulty; so, Elin’s mind is hijacked to bring her efforts to the task. She sees a crashed car (Tobias’ failure to fix things alone) and gets a glimpse of her unhappy future if she fails to accept her daughter’s fate and her husband’s earnestness.

    Comment by Giles - September 9, 2019 11:11 pm

  7. Activity is sorted, now I just have to rest up from it!

    I agree the daughter’s probably doing what she does because there’s some necessity involved, but … for me the number of questions multiply rapidly (what limits does she have, how does she get this power, why wait years before going ahead with it, and on and on and on). That is, the ending felt less like a logical wrapping-up of what I’d seen than a gesture toward an explanation which, for me, required more support in both character and plot terms. I think the movie was going for open-ended and evocative, but was so enigmatic as to come off as slapdash.

    I agree with your interpretation of the two characters, and that Elin’s shown to be stronger. But then why is Tobias taking the lead throughout the movie? Why start with Tobias at all? I thought about whether the snow suggested a jump in time, but the problem is that the movie then has another go through the loop, and there’s no snow.

    I kinda go back and forth on whether the film’s exploitative. I feel like I could argue either way. But it is certainly a piece that inspires discussion.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - September 11, 2019 3:53 pm


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