RELEASE DATE: 24/04/2014
RUN TIME: 1HR 24MIN
It’s 1942, and Singapore has just fallen to the Japanese. A young Australian soldier (Khan Chittenden) crashes in the jungles near Singapore, alone and with no idea where he is. Trekking through the dense jungle, he stumbles upon a Chinese soldier (Mo Tzu-Yi), also lost and trying to hide. Neither speaks the other's language, but they stick together as they try to find a way out and avoid the enemy always close by in the jungle.
Wilson has set himself some pretty immense challenges with ‘Canopy’, and from a purely technical standpoint, overcomes them with great finesse. The film looks extraordinary, with cinematographer Stefan Duscio giving the Singaporean jungle tremendous visual scope. This is the kind of film high definition cameras were invented for, and the virgin jungle has been captured with such startling detail that you feel like you could almost step straight into it. The environment is the third character in the film, and often the stronger antagonist, laying its challenges for the soldiers with cold disconnect. There may be the sounds of man and his war in the distance, but the jungle still goes on regardless. This also brings us to the remarkable sound design. Wilson’s screenplay is almost devoid of dialogue, certainly none in English, instead relying on sound to give the film context and drive the narrative forward. It’s mostly successful, often incredibly so (the opening is bold and very clever), but there are points where it can become a tad too complex or overdone, and when moments of film score kick in, they seem at odds with the carefully constructed aural environment. That said, the fact that Wilson is daring enough to use sound and visuals to tell his story rather than dialogue is a sign of a very brave director, and these facts alone should put him in great stead for a fascinating career ahead.
However, where the film stumbles is its narrative. ‘Canopy’ works primarily as an experience rather than a piece of traditional storytelling, but the considered pacing and long stretches with no major narrative action make for, at times, a very dreamlike and hazy experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but requires a lot of patience from the audience, especially once it sinks in, in a film that is less action war film and more of a meditation of survival and loneliness, and things aren’t really going to pick up any time soon. The decision to feature two characters who cannot communicate through language though is a really exciting one, and makes for some of the most powerful moments of the film. Khan Chittenden (who isn’t as frequent on our screens as he should be) is incredibly arresting as the young Australian soldier, never falling into the usual "young man at war in a hostile environment" clichés. He holds the screen with a focused intensity and awareness, holding the tension of the film with a firm grip. Mo Tzu-Yi is also excellent as the Chinese soldier, but he tends to have more dialogue (never subtitled, a very wise decision), and this makes him seem less focused and intense as Chittenden. It’s also hard to track their relationship, as the rhythm of the film is so languid that you feel like you’ve missed something in their development. However, when it hits its more powerful narrative points, the film demonstrates great force, especially in its final moments.
The film looks extraordinary; the environment is the third character in the film.
It might be a lot of work for an audience to sit through a film that so consciously takes its time, but there are many rewards along the way with ‘Canopy’, and the visual and aural world of the film are truly remarkable. It’ll be great to see where Aaron Wilson goes from here, because regardless of how well ‘Canopy’ does at the box office, there’s simply too much distinctive talent to ignore. Influences like Terrence Malick are never far away from this film, and if that tickles your interest, it’s most definitely worth your time. When an Australian film dares to push the boundaries as ‘Canopy’ does, it deserves to be seen.