In The Origin: Madam Koi-Koi, released in two parts on Netflix, women are many things, concepts and characters. Women are saviours and villains, women are victims and victors, women are gods and spirits, and ultimately women are vengeance. These many roles make for an intriguing study of horror as a medium for women’s revenge against society’s war against them but, unfortunately, they are untethered from a firm narrative and any horror elements, leaving an underwhelming feeling with no true catharsis at the end of the series.
Unfolding mostly in an uncomfortably porous school compound in a fictional town, a vengeful spirit drawn to a horrific history of sexual violence is awakened when a student with mysterious ties to the past starts attending the school. Split into two parts, the first part is light on the horror but heavy on the exposition, giving origin to the spirit, Madam Koi-Koi, while the second part tracks her journey to vengeance.
The first chapter, “The Awakening”, is in a hurry to remind you of its horror genre with the soundtrack eager to lend horror to normal scenes thereby losing its potency. The story focuses on painting the true picture of sexual violence that exists in boarding schools like this and in our community at large. Amanda (played on one singular note by Martha Ehinome) resumes at the school against her will as bloody nightmares plague her. Then she is introduced to Lashe, played menacingly by Chuks Joseph, who leads—to put it bluntly—a gang of rapists that attend the school and are revered and protected as the golden boys because of their academic success. Ibukun (Ejiro Onojaife) stands with them in the assembly hall as the lone girl and newbie Amanda inquires about her dynamic with them. Edna (Nene Nwanyo), her new friend, tells her about Ibukun’s quest for their attention and warns her to stay clear of the boys, implying a history of assault that the school is covering up.
That conversation lays the ground for this chapter to be framed by two violent sexual assault scenes: one in the present to set the story for the next part and another set in the past to give origin to Madam Koi-Koi (played by Omowunmi Dada with the scraps she’s given). These are the only true horrific elements of that episode mostly because they do more to trigger than scare you. These emotions are then amplified by the immediate cold-hearted cover-up and victim blaming offered by Mother Superior (Ireti Doyle). Doyle plays Mother Superior with a calculated, sharp and precise wickedness; her voice is almost never raised, her words picked to strike fear and the ever-present threat of her wooden cane hovers throughout the film—too bad the character doesn’t meet a befitting end.
Released a week apart, my reaction to the first part was mostly cautious but still hopeful because I expected that once the exposition was out of the way, we could get into the true horrors of this story. Well, that wasn’t the case.
The second chapter, “The Spirit of Vengeance”, is plagued by flashbacks at every turn with scenes set up just for them and no true stakes being raised more than halfway through. The things that shine in the second part do not shine for long. Baba Fawole (Jude Chukwuka), the school facility manager and plot mover, switches seamlessly between educator and historian and the scenes with Baba Fajimi (Abiodun Muibi) are honest and even funny but I’m sure you already know what it sets up. Yes, another flashback. The Yoruba incantations, like the ones Baba Fajimi recites as he finds a solution to the town’s imminent destruction, add a certain element of depth to the horrors, grounding them in reality but then the rules of this spirit are constantly changing and have no hard boundaries therefore losing the power of consequence. This ebb and flow of brilliance continues when we meet the two detectives assigned to the case, Oscar (Baaj Adebule) and Theophilus (Deyemi Okanlanwon in a funny wig). They traverse the school and town in search of clues and are teased to exist in a duality of belief and doubt in the spiritual forces at play, but are quickly flattened into one dimension.
Shooting horror is a balance of things said and unsaid, horrors we witness and those left to our imagination and Madam Koi-Koi is clumsy with this. The inconsistent red filter used to signal the spirit’s presence is almost cloying and her screeching is generic, showing no true vocal character. It often seems like the camera is shy of these horrors, afraid to scare us. The scene where the fingers of the village rapists and their father’s are being cut is one that I expected to squirm at but disappointingly the act is blocked and we never truly witness it. Instead, there is a repetition of blood dripping from bodies and faces scarred by Madam Koi-Koi’s attacks. And for a film that leans heavily on sexual violence, one would expect the death of the rapists to be front and centre, giving us the satisfaction of vengeance that horror is known for, yet the camera avoids it.
Directed by Jay Franklyn-Jituboh, the story unfolds with a series of disturbing instances involving assault on women’s bodies. We learn that one of the detectives is a pedophile, Amanda’s mother was abandoned by her father, and the town has a history of falsely accusing and killing a woman. Amidst these revelations, Amanda emerges as the central figure responsible for defeating Madam Koi-Koi. The town is saved and never addresses its history of gendered sexual violence and one of the rape scenes in episode one is just forgotten; we never see Ibukun (Ejiro Onojaife) get to laugh over the bodies of her rapists. The way assault is deployed even till the post-credit scene where a senior girl is about to sexually assault a junior boy and Madam Koi-Koi appears is all very worrisome. That scene especially seems like a weak effort to say that assault goes both ways after spending over two hours violently assaulting women.
The history this two-part story placed before us is supposed to give the villainy of Madam Koi-Koi some depth, a woman consumed by justified revenge but instead it paints her one colour with manageable makeup and visual effects. The story fails to meld the prevalence of assault in the town into its narrative. Instead, it is deployed constantly to shock the story back to life which leaves the town’s horrid legacy of sexual violence left untouched at the end of the film.
Women have been wronged by Nollywood time and time again and this timely story had a chance to give some redemption but instead, it falls into the same pit of an almost callous disregard of its own setup. It begs the question, which genre will women ever find solace in?
The Origin: Madam Koi-Koi premiered on October 31, 2023, on Netflix.
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- I really liked the closing song.
- Chioma Chukwuka’s character might have been some metaphor for the silencing of women but she never really is part of the story.
- That junior student under the bed gave me war flashbacks, boarding school was so brutal.
- Mother Superior’s henchman was hilarious to me, with his suspenders.