This was the UK’s foreign language entry to the Oscars but, like the recently posted Tehran Taboo, is essentially an Iranian film made by ex-pats; it couldn’t have been done in Iran. It was writer-director Babak Anvari’s debut and it hits the sweet spot of a horror film that scares whilst emotionally engaging the audience. Narges Rashidi plays Shideh whose medical studies were curtailed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 because she was left wing; it should be noted that the western-backed Shah who was toppled would also not have been sympathetic toward her. She’s forced to be a housewife rather than emulating her mother, who has recently died. She has a daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), who’s already apparently seeing things when the film starts; her husband is conscripted to a frontline hospital early in the film and Iraq starts sending missiles to bomb Tehran. It’s a fraught situation and Anvari skilfully cranks up the fear subtly treading the tightrope as to whether the djinn is real or a figment of stressed imaginations.
It’s well into the film when the shocks start arriving and reminded me of Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Japan 2002) in the slow build up and where the building itself apparently becomes a threat. Understandably Shideh’s neighbours start leaving after an unexploded missile embeds itself in the roof leaving mother and daughter to fight amongst themselves; as in The Babadook (Australia-Canada, 2014) Shideh’s daughter is unhappy with the parenting she’s receiving. According to Kermode’s review, Anvari cites Polanski’s The Tenant (France-US, 1976) as an influence and the war setting with children reminds me of The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, Mexico-Spain) by Guillermo del Toro. However, there’s little sense that Under the Shadow is derivative because of its social context: the repressive version of Islam in wartime. In one scene, when mother and daughter flee into the night, they are arrested because Shideh isn’t wearing a chador. The chador, incidentally, is also also representative of the djinn emphasising how the evil spirit is repression of women.
There are, by necessity, other horror tropes but Anvari and editor Chris Barwell hit their marks brilliantly and I was leaping and yelping around the sofa a few times. The director went on to make Wounds which I’ll have to catch up on.
Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.
This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.
The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.
Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.