Life Goes On: Koko-di Koko-da (2020)-Reviewed


Grief and the ways in which it manifests can often feel like an endless, debilitating loop. Whilst in the throes of the loss of a loved one, be it through death, a breakup or falling out, our depression leads us into holes where we repeat behaviors. These behaviors can range anywhere from making little sense to those around us to being downright harmful to our well being. These aren’t new ideas but in Johannes Nyholm's Koko-Di Koko-Da, we're sent into a time loop where a husband and wife are forced to confront these brutal realities over and over again until they're broken or find acceptance, whichever comes first.

We meet Tobias (Lief Edlund) and Elin (Yiva Gallon) on the day of their daughter Maja's birthday. Decked out in rabbit makeup, they frantically search for her only to find her staring through a shop window at a music box, almost hypnotically. Painted on the side of the music box are an older man in a white suit and hat, a girl with pig tails, a hulking man and two pitbulls, one live and one dead. After letting her pick the music box as her birthday present, the family heads to a restaurant for lunch and further celebrations. The day ends in tragedy, though, when Elin is rushed to the hospital because of food poisoning. Waking up the next morning in their hospital room, the couple attempt to surprise Maja with a cake and her music box only to find that, despite seeming fine the night before, she's died in her sleep. 

After a brief interlude featuring a shadow puppet show of a family of rabbits burying their child, we find Tobias and Elin some time later. They've grown distant since the death of their daughter and are headed out to the woods on a camping trip that they hope will bring them back together. After some back and forth bickering, they make it to their destination and set up camp for the night. Elin wakes up sometime in the morning to go to the bathroom and it's here that she's confronted by the trio of characters depicted on her daughter's music box. However, despite their leader's jovial demeanor, singing and whistling through the woods, they're horrific caricatures of the cartoony figures we saw previously. And they aren't here to put on a fun show for the couple.

These people are here to inflict physical and psychological damage and Nyholm uses them as the couple's arbiters of grief. As the film descends into a nightmare of arriving to the camp, going to sleep, waking up only to be beaten to death by the trio and their dog, Tobias and Elin are forced to relive horror after horror. 

The idea here is simple, the trio of monsters terrorizing the parents are their unresolved tensions and if the couple isn't going to work things out like the adults they are then it's just going to have to be drilled into them by any means necessary. Sometimes both are killed, sometimes Tobias flees without Elin but no matter the outcome, until the two can accept that Maja is gone, they're locked into this purgatory with these sideshow-esque performers.

On paper, this is a terrifically inventive way to portray the cycles of grief. Instead of subjecting his viewers to a misery that feels real and too close to home, Nyholm eschews us into a disturbing and fantastical reality. That's not to say that what's happening onscreen isn't horrifying, rather it's a bold way to depict a subject that's been done one too many times before. Grief is such an abstract concept, we get it, we know and we feel it but to (quite literally) humanize it is exciting. To allow us to visualize the grief as something for the couple to physically overcome is to make it all the more real. The stunning DP work from Tobias Höiem-Flyckt and Johan Lundborg thrusts us even deeper into the haziness of grief, creating an atmosphere that feels exactly like being in a dream that you can't wake up from. Every image is stark and immediate yet there's a haze around it, holding you down and refusing to let you go.

It's just a shame the film is so facile, meandering and hollow.

David Lynch is a clear inspiration for Koko-di Koko-da. Lynch is no stranger to representing abstract ideas through humanization and in many ways, the trio of monsters lurking in the woods resemble Black Lodge castoffs. The key difference between Lynch and Nyholm is that even when subjecting his characters and his viewers to horrific imagery, you never question the heart at the center of Lynch's work. There's an overwhelming sense of optimism to him, even if you have search for it. Here, as the brutality turns to banality, you lose any sense of heart that the film might have had.

When we meet Tobias and Elin, their interactions are natural and loving, so much so that you sometimes forget that you're watching actors and not a real couple. It's what makes what eventually happens to them so distressing and devastating. As the film goes on, it loses that, almost profoundly so. Nyholm becomes so laser-focused on depicting acts of violence that he loses any sense of who these people are. Elin becomes almost lost in the film entirely, each repeating day beginning to focus more and more on Tobias. Why he slowly begins to remember each previous day and she doesn't isn't explored. Why he attempts to leave her to the proverbial wolves is left on the table. It's a film full of missed opportunities. Nyholm becomes so concerned with the abstract that he forgets that for us to map ourselves onto the abstract, the reality has to feel lived-in on some level.

It's what makes the general thesis of the film come off as juvenile at best. Grief is monstrous, repetitive and life-destroying, yes, but what else do you have to say about it? It's become a bit trite to suggest that a film could work better as a short because it implies that there's nowhere to take the idea but here one can't help but wonder how much more effective the film would be had it been cut down. It seems to know this by inserting the shadow puppet interludes. These are genuinely spellbinding moments but they aren't showing us anything we haven't seen but through yet another metaphorical lens. The film ends up feeling like a mishmash of ideas designed to pad itself out because it reached the point it was making pretty early and decided it needed to run out the clock. This becomes even more apparent when the shock of the violence they endure wears off and becomes nothing but a slog. It all results in such a miserable experience but not in the way Nyholm intended.

There's something to the idea of brutality turning to banality, endless grief muting our pain until it becomes routine.  It's not lost on you that Koko-di Koko-da's titular song has similar rhythms to the Beatles' classic about moving on with your life, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" but the film spends far too much time spinning its wheels. It never shocks you or its subjects out of their repetition into some kind of understanding.

It's become a bit of a trend to see people say "I'm so sick of the Groundhog Day conceit" when time loop movies are released but more often than not, they almost always result in fun and inventive or sometimes even harrowing new spins. This year's wonderful Palm Springs did all three effortlessly. There was a real opportunity here to continue that run and create a new wrinkle to the time loop. The idea is always to have your characters and audience learn to accept something by being stuck in a day that repeats itself. Koko-di Koko-da instead decides to show you how much of an endless slog grief is and forgets to go any further. By the time we reach our moment of catharsis, you're too numb even care. The delivery system is undoubtedly inventive but underneath, it has nothing to say.

-Brandon Streussnig