Canopy begins with a five-minute sequence that sets the scene splendidly for the film to come, but may also test the patience of many viewers. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear of people leaving during it if for no other reason than nothing much happens. In fact, the first minute or two are a completely blank, black screen. This isn’t an oversight, however, but rather an effective way to instantly bring audiences into the world of Aaron Wilson’s film. Canopy is a movie rich of its own world, an 80-minute work of filmmaking that rises above mere war or survival films and becomes something unique. A rare film of the digital age that truly uses the medium to its advantages by crafting a work that is all-consuming and while perhaps minor in its dramatic aspirations – compare to, say, Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, also dealing with WWII in the South-East Asia region, but doing so on a more heightened, sentimental fashion – is nevertheless a vital film and one that suggests a fresh point of view from a debut director.
Having ejected himself from his plane, an Australian flyboy (Khan Chittenden) lands in the canopy of the Singapore jungle. Quickly freeing himself from the parachute chords that have entangled themselves in the long-limbed trees of the Singapore jungle, he sets out on a course to somewhere he probably doesn’t even know. He finds a stream of dirty water and looks rather aimlessly at his military-provided waterproof map that does little to help his sense of direction. As night falls he runs – literally – into a Chinese soldier (Tzu-yi Mo) and as the two realise they are on the same side of the war (Japanese soldiers are rarely seen above chest-height) they forge ahead, eventually building an unlikely friendship that may or may not develop into a more deeply-felt companionship. The two don’t share a language, and in fact the entirely of Canopy’s dialogue could probably be written on a napkin, and it isn’t until several days into their journey that they decide to share names: Jim and Seng. Despite having a wife at home, Jim’s eyes tell a different story and this gives the film an extra layer to which its minimalist tale can unfold.
Obviously inspired by the contemplative works of Asian filmmakers like Tsia Ming-liang (certainly more so than Terrence Malick, who it would probably be easy to cite as a chief influence, but which I wouldn’t necessarily agree with), Canopy is a beautiful film to watch. Visually resplendent thanks in no small part to the natural beauty of the Singapore filming locations, but also thanks to Stefan Duscio. Much like another recent Australian film, Fell, Duscio’s camera surveys the landscape as keenly as a soldier might in unfamiliar territory. Frequently allowing its actors to camouflage their way into the scenery, the film is never more beautiful to look at than when a flare ignites across the sky in the middle of the night resulting in orange shadows dancing across Jim and Seng’s faces. Furthermore, the aural soundscapes that dominate the soundtrack are wondrous, too. The ceaseless explosions and rat-a-tat-tat poppings of war, native jungle sound effects, and ever-encroaching voices of enemy soldiers are perfectly blended into a full-on assault to the speakers.
A sequel was recently announced, which certainly made for surprising news given this film’s limited reach (sadly underseen upon its Australian release, but already a success abroad; hopefully its American roll-out through Monterey Media will allow it to be seen by more eyes). It will be a follow-up to the character of Jim (Chittenden and Edwina Wren who briefly appears in Canopy are both attached) and it will be interesting to see if the skills so wonderfully displayed here can be replicated in the Australian country. For now, however, Canopy is an incredibly strong film. It’s a small film, but one that isn’t held down by whatever budgetary limitations that it may have had. There’s so much skill on display here that easy to forget you’re watching a first time feature director at work.