Saturday 12 September 2020

Crazy in tents: "Koko-Di Koko-Da"

Denmark summons up Antichrist, Sweden hits back with Koko-Di Koko-Da, another if-you-go-down-to-the-woods nightmare apparently conceived to mess with viewers' heads. The startpoint is virtually identical - couple have their ad-ready parenting model destroyed by the sudden death of their child - but writer-director Johannes Nyholm flags his willingness to play around with form (and venture strikingly off-piste) by staging the immediate aftermath as part of a magic lantern show. What happens next, as the joyless couple (Ylva Gallon and Leif Edlund) set out on an especially fraught camping expedition, clearly bears some correlation to this tragedy, and the mocking loss, painful self-recrimination and crushing guilt that would follow from it. The thing is: what happens next is pretty damn weird. It involves, for one, a cat who seemingly serves the same semiotic purpose as Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit and, for another, a rogue patrol of carnival entertainers, including a monobrowed giant (Morad Khatchadorian) and a straw boater-clad barker (Peter Belli) who resembles a demonic cross between Twin Peaks's Leland Palmer and Eurotrash stalwart Eddy Wally. Von Trier's genital-slashing carnage in Antichrist was the logical endpoint of an ever-escalating battle-of-the-sexes, but there's no immediate or obvious connection between this couple's past and the perilous situation they find themselves in: the film's a freakout that requires some measure of figuring out.

It might help to know going in that the overall design isn't linear but circular, like the remote glade Nyholm's camera returns to time and again. Lynch seems to have been one influence (there's a rabbit motif, and a strong hint that some of what we witness is but a dream inside a dream), but older-school viewers may also be reminded of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that invited the reader to follow different routes into, through and out of various narrative woods. (Nyholm's title, borrowed from a nursery rhyme that crops up at crucial intervals, itself seems to describe forking paths.) Sometimes this couple fail to see the forest for the trees; some turns are just a write-off, a dead loss; yet there are equally one or two where they just about struggle through and emerge on the other side. Nyholm has chosen a poppy delivery system for it - reviews have also cited Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run as reference points - but it's just possible he intends this tale to be a lesson in grief, and how it can hit you on certain days. Initially surrounded, outnumbered and sundered by their demons, the couple begin to anticipate their pursuers' movements, work together and eventually achieve some mastery over the carny folk; an unexpectedly moving return to that magic lantern show in the final third gestures towards the place art might have in this process of healing. It will entail some built-in repetition, and I can't promise you a happy ending (although Nyholm leaves his lovers in better shape than the pessimist von Trier did): the takehome, I think, is that this work is typically harder than movies allow for, and that it has to be ongoing. Yet Koko-Di Koko-Da is never quite as bleak or despairing as that reading maybe sounds. On the contrary, this is as playful an illustration of the you-can't-outrun-your-past trope as we've seen in recent times, and - for all its mindfuckery - oddly therapeutic, in that very Scandinavian way.

Koko-Di Koko-Da is now streaming via the BFI Player, and available on Blu-Ray via Picturehouse Entertainment.

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