REVIEW: Canopy

Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 12:05 pm

This is the twenty-ninth film I saw at the 18th Busan International Film Festival.

I take an interest in what I call "experiential filmmaking", where the film is built around giving the audience an experience as similar to the protagonist or character as is possible to achieve, given the gap between the screen and audio projection and the audience. Among Western films I count Alfonso Cuaron's Children Of Men (for its long tracking shots) and his currently-released Gravity (also long takes, but also utilising the IMAX 3D format) and Paul Greengrass' United 93 (the way it uses handheld camera, nondescript actors and realistic dialogue). The Australian/Singaporean film Canopy is of the same mould.

The film begins with a full minute of blackout, and all you hear is sound. The sound allows the audience to have an idea of where they are, given that it's wartime period; you hear old Chinese music and what sounds like shophouses, which is rudely interrupted by bombing. Then we cut to the title, and are informed that it is February 1942, Singapore. This puts us just weeks after the shockingly successful Japanese invasion.

The first time we see our protagonist, an Australian pilot named Jim, he is hanging off a tree from his parachute. From that point the film stays largely with him, as he gets himself off a tree, finds his knife missing (while falling from the sky? lost in the mud?), and quickly has to escape from the approaching noises of footsteps and gunshots. He moves into the jungle, and just keeps moving, not entirely sure where to go, even with his compass, just as long as he stays as far away from the noises of gunshots as he can, lying low when they approach.

You won't be surprised to know that the film has virtually no dialogue. After all, this isn't Castaway where the protagonist imagines someone to talk to. It sticks to realism: the whole point is to be as quiet as possible. Sound design plays a doubly important role here. The sound of gunshots is continuous and unceasing, changing only in its volume, which indicates distance. Occasionally a bomb is heard to go off; sometimes Jim is near enough for his face to be lit with yellow.

Virtually no dialogue, because soon Jim bumps into a Singaporean resistance fighter Ah Seng (played by Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi; why Taiwanese? because they speak Hokkien, also known as Minnan in Taiwan, although Ah Seng speaks so whisperingly that it took me a long time to place his dialect ... at any case he totally looked Singaporean to me). They do bond over time, especially after Ah Seng is shot and Jim tries to seal up his wound with his cord and needle in a tense and excruciating scene. Theirs is necessarily a wordless friendship, communicating mostly in gestures, or whispers when they feel it's safe enough to talk; Jim's first word to Ah Seng is "Drink."

Both Tzu-Yi and Khan Chittenden, who plays Jim, are never less than believable as their characters, suffering the ordeals in the film.

There's not much more to the story, the only question being what will happen to these two guys by the end of the film. On the other hand, if you knew the history of what happened when the Japanese took over Singapore, then you can kind of expect what will happen.

The visual effects in the film is remarkably good, considering it's a low budget film. The shots of a plane crashing into the forest, and smoke and fires dotting different parts of the forest, look very real, so well done to the VFX team. For the few utterances heard in Japanese and Hokkien, there are no subtitles: if Jim doesn't understand them, neither do we. As I mentioned, the sound design is top-notch; one more thing about it is that it mimics Jim's state of mind, going silent when he's focused on something, or getting exaggerated when he's paying intense attention to the sounds around him.

The last shot of the film is only made comprehensible when I saw the end credits.

The film is set in a Singapore that doesn't exist anymore, one filled with forest and swamps. It is largely shot in Bukit Brown in Singapore ... and Sungei Buloh in Malaysia.

How Good I Think It Is: 7/10
Did I Fall Asleep: Nope.

Links to the other 33 reviews of films seen at the film festival.


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