Singapore, 1942. We are deep into World War II and the Japanese are invading. Jim (Khan Chittenden) is an Australian airman, who wakes up in the jungles of Singapore where he has crash-landed and is hanging off a tree by his parachute. Seng (Mo Tzu-Yi), is a Singapore-Chinese resistance fighter who has been injured and is lost in the same jungle. When the two collide, the mortal enemies have to form an unlikely friendship in order to survive the jungle.
An atmospheric and tense survival drama, Canopy is set in the dense rainforest outside of Singapore in February 1942 – right in the middle of the Japanese invasion. Jaundiced skies are ripped by bombs and crashing planes, yet down among the trees and vines, there’s an impervious natural beauty. Sunlight filters through leaves and the sounds of birds and crickets continue, oblivious to the human devastation around them. Jim (Khan Chittenden), a young Australian fighter pilot, literally drops into frame when his parachute jags in the trees. As he regains consciousness – shot in point of view through his cracked aviator goggles – it quickly becomes clear that the forest is infested with Japanese soldiers. The sounds of their voices and their gunshots advance and recede. Even in the thick forest canopy there’s nowhere to hide.
"One of this year’s must-see Australian films"
Starving, disoriented and terrified, fighting his way through the thick mud and vegetation, the heartbreakingly young-looking Jim meets another soldier adrift, a Chinese-Singaporean resistance fighter, Seng (Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi, who gives a beautiful performance). The two men form an uneasy and wordless alliance (they have no shared language), but when Seng is injured, Jim refuses to leave him to die. Jim’s essential decency and humanity involves some very bloody needlework done without anaesthetic. It’s unclear where the two men are trying to go (Jim has a map that he consults regularly, but we don’t get a close-up). Wandering in the bush, the two men try to stay alive from moment to moment, and try to stay silent, even when they’re bitten by ants and plagued by night terrors.
An Australia-Singaporean co-production, this impressive feature film debut from Australian writer-director Aaron Wilson (whose previous short films include Ahmad’s Garden and Leap Year) made a great impression when it premiered at Toronto in 2013, with much praise for the stunning cinematography by Stefan Duscio (Galore, The Turning) and the immersive soundscape by Nic Buchanan and Rodney Lowe. The look and sound of Canopy really is very special, and worth the price of admission on its own. Shot on the RED camera, inventive angles and breathtaking vistas manage to be meditative and terrifying at once – you can see why the name of Terrence Malick has been invoked by reviewers. There are multiple upwards-looking shots through shimmering leaves; the pretty but ominous reflection of fighter planes crossing leaf-framed puddles; the dangerous glow of skin at night, threatening to reveal fugitive hiding places.
An almost total absence of dialogue only means that the other sounds are brought into stark and effective relief. The dissonant sounds of nature and warfare create tension, suspense, and a comment on the futility and crude destruction of war. It really does feel as though we are there in the jungle, the birds singing and a spider spinning its web peacefully, even as men hunt each other.
Yet it starts to feel, in the third act, as though this commitment to an absence of dialogue – and also the commitment to a stripped-back narrative that refuses to give essential orienting cues – has been taken to an unnecessary extreme, robbing us of the very immersion and emotional involvement the film is aiming for. Nevertheless, Canopy is one of this year’s must-see Australian films, and a welcome intimate departure from the usual cast-of-thousands ANZAC screen fare.