Review: Canopy (2013)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

With its Australian premiere this week at the Gold Coast Film Festival, Canopy is an Australian-Singaporean co-production that was a passion project eight years in the making for director Aaron Wilson and producer Katrina Fleming.

Set during the days of the Battle of Singapore in 1942, the film opens with the plane of WWII RAAF pilot Jim (Khan Chittenden) being shot down over the island. He parachutes out to safety, only to find himself in the thick of a mangrove-like swampy jungle.

From there on, we are taken on a personal ride with Jim (often with shots from behind, with the view of Jim’s head or back) as he struggles to find sustenance (clean water to drink, etc) and to stay vigilant in evading the enemy. Along the way, Jim runs into Seng (played by Taiwanese singer/actor Mo Tzu-yi), a Singaporean resistance fighter who got separated from his unit in the jungle after an ambush by the Japanese, and from the looks of the state he was in, he had probably been on the run longer than Jim. Despite the language barrier, this unlikely pair quickly formed a bond — an alliance for survival more than anything else, although the vulnerability of their situation probably sparked a speedier than normal need for human connection and solace.

Still from CANOPY

With family background and hometown heritage steeped in World War II history as the motivation behind the making of the film (Wilson grew up in the town of Tocumwal, NSW while Fleming had a grandfather and grand-uncle who fought in WWII), this independently-financed 80 minute WWII film is more of a memory project. Those expecting an action-fueled, guns-blazing war film will be sorely disappointed, as the only action in the film is of lost Australian airman Jim running around in a Singaporean jungle, hiding from the Japanese army in fear.

Like a blend of a Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-Wai flick, Canopy is a film that appeals to the senses in reverie-like fashion, rather than one that follows the conventional storytelling approach. Sparse on dialogue (perhaps ten lines are spoken by the two characters in the film), almost zero on gunfire (unless you count the sounds of gunshots in the distance) and practically devoid of a clear narrative progression, the film concentrates on creating an authentic and lush soundscape as well as visual atmosphere of the jungle as the backdrop against which the two characters must navigate around in order to survive the ordeal of being lost in a hostile environment.

Both Jim and Seng are fictional characters — Jim a composite picture based on archival information, interviews with and from stories told by surviving WWII veterans, such as Fleming’s grandfather; but it turned out that there was in fact a well known Singaporean freedom fighter named Seng, a happy coincidence discovered only when it was revealed in the course of conducting historical research for the film.

The jungle, considered the third character in the film according to Fleming, provided perhaps the more difficult task in character development. Canopy was filmed in 3 separate locations in Singapore, two national park reserves and an old Chinese cemetery. While the actual filming only took 4 nights and 4 days, the approval process to gain access to the national parks for filming took 12 attempts over a few years and the post-production work of creating the jungle soundscape alone took 7 months. Not to mention the logistical demands, the unruly physical terrain and the sweltering tropical heat of filming in a jungle that the film team experienced in the endeavor to recreate as accurate a depiction as possible of what it might have been like to be an ordinary soldier during WWII, adrift in an unfamiliar environment, and trapped in a life and death situation.

Still from CANOPY

For Wilson and Fleming, the film is a tribute to those who served in the Australian military during WWII, finally telling their stories and making their voices heard. Many of the servicemen who came home after the war were unable to speak of their horrific experiences, both as a result of the suffering of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as having been instructed by military authorities to keep mum and keep their war stories to themselves. As the nation moved towards the postwar period of progress and prosperity, many were keen to forget and leave behind its WWII political and military entanglements.

For me, it was certainly an interesting and entertaining movie-going experience and Canopy’s unusual cinematic mash-up of audiovisual imagery managed well in delivering a tensed and thrilling account of 1940s Southeast Asian jungle wartime survival. But beyond the film’s production backstory and stylistic method, Canopy is in Fleming’s own words, “really just a story of anyone being stuck in an unknown situation, alone, scared out of your wits, and then finding a friend in the same situation and banding together to survive”.

Background information about the film was obtained during an interview with its producer, Katrina Fleming, during its Nordic premiere at the Stockholm International Film Festival in November 2013. Canopy had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013 and will be released in cinemas in Australia on April 24, 2014. See the official site for screening details.

7 jungle sounds out of 10.
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