Canopy: Toronto Review
Khan Chittenden and Mo Tzu-Yi star as WWII soldiers in Australian director Aaron Wilson’s absorbing debut feature.
Birdsong and bombs jostle to the fore in Canopy, an immersive, almost wordless, concept film that puts you right there in the lush, green jungles of Singapore alongside an Australian airman shot down during WWII.
From an early POV shot through cracked goggles to the insistent squelch of mud beneath combat boots, writer-director Aaron Wilson maintains a remarkable realism throughout as he builds a lean and focused meditation on the bewildering nature of war. It’s a plucky and promising feature debut from the young Australian, who should find his carefully calibrated arthouse film in demand on the festival circuit following its premiere in the Discovery program in Toronto.
Australian fighter pilot Jim (Khan Chittenden), shot down over Singapore during the Japanese invasion of 1942, regains consciousness suspended in the treetops of a dense tropical rainforest. Immediately on high alert, he starts to make his way through unfamiliar territory, weaponless, lost and hungry, hyper-aware of the far-off boom of exploding bombs and his close proximity to staccato bursts of gunfire.
This is a film that eschews epic battle scenes and carnage to delve into the quieter, no less terrifying, moments of waiting and watching. An uncluttered narrative puts the focus on Nic Buchanan and Rodney Lowe’s rich, compelling soundscape and on sophisticated visuals that slowly build tension through the interplay of stillness and movement.
The film is remarkably visceral. You can feel the stickiness of the tropics, the drench of perspiration, and the ever-present fear. When Jim stumbles across another soldier, similarly unarmed, hackles are raised. But Seng (Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi) turns out to be a Singapore-Chinese resistance fighter and the two fall into an initially uneasy alliance against the Japanese troops who hunt them.
Through the sweltering days and ominous nights, as the two men fight to survive, they form a deepening cross-cultural connection that transcends language. Wilson elicits genuine, subdued emotion from both actors in what is essentially a two-hander, and these strong performances carry the film through the slower portions. With little more than a tentative exchange of names, the soldiers come to embody the essence of mateship, a peculiarly Australian word that implies mutual respect and unconditional support forged in the trenches.
Filming on location in Singapore’s exotic jungles and mangrove swamps, Stefan Duscio’s gorgeous, almost unearthly cinematography, manages to capture the enormity of nature’s magnificent beauty and deadly threat.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Finer Films, Chuan Pictures
Cast: Khan Chittenden, Mo Tzu-Yi
Writer-director: Aaron Wilson
Producers: Katrina Fleming, Aaron Wilson
Co-producer: Mabelyn Ow
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Tim Burgin
Costume designer: Maria Tsoukas
Editor: Cindy Clarkson
Sales: Odin’s Eye Entertainment, Australia
No rating, 84 minutes