To the suddenly white-hot adventure subgenre of one or two souls alone against nature, a movement pioneered by J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” add the more modestly scaled but no less absorbing wartime survival adventure “Canopy.” This ravishingly shot first feature from rural Australian-born filmmaker Aaron Wilson, in which an Aussie fighter pilot tries to stay alive after being shot down in the thick Singaporean jungle at the peak of the early 1942 Japanese invasion, will spread among fests and find shelter with distribs eager to parlay the genre’s buzz into arthouse success.
A few atmospheric CGI shots establish the scope of the battle, with smoke rising in the distance and aircraft streaking across the sky. With little fanfare and no backstory, aviator Jim (Khan Chittenden) literally falls into the frame and, after cutting himself free of the cumbersome canvas harness, is mired ankle-deep in thick black mud, the sounds of war raging around him.
After frantically going through his survival kit to identify the items he might need, he begins a furtive trek that moves him out of the mud and into the verdant yet imposing jungle. In short order he literally runs into Seng (Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi), a Chinese freedom fighter on the run whose colleague has just been killed. Though they don’t share a common language, they manage to survive together until the inevitable run-in with Japanese forces.
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The aural landscape here is key, as Wilson’s strategy is to create a visual theater of the mind in which the majority of the action is heard and not seen. Thus the sounds of the forest intermingle with the chaos of war, as the sweat-stained faces of the protags register the fear and determination of the hunted. Pic as a whole plays as if Terrence Malick had, at some point, abandoned “The Thin Red Line” and decided on a looser, more organic and less histrionic remake of John Boorman’s “Hell in the Pacific.”
Wilson has a personal interest in his story, having grown up among veterans and assembled the plot from stories he heard. That Jim’s predicament is a metaphor for the historical relationship between Singapore and Australia is there for the taking but not pushed, giving the film an added layer of resonance for those in the know.
The expressive, sweat-stained faces of Chittenden, who bears a striking resemblance to Matt Damon, and Mo, discovered by the filmmaker in the 2009 Taiwanese episodic drama “A Place of One’s Own,” sell the sense of fear and confusion.
Every bit their equal behind the scenes are sound designers Nic Buchanan and Rodney Lowe, who have created a rich, complex and terrifying soundscape in which nature and war comingle in cacophonous symphony. The film was photographed in a remarkable eight days by Stefan Duscio, whose affilitations with Andrew Lesnie (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty”) have influenced his serene tracking shots and striking angles.
Per press notes, Wilson and his team are already in production on a companion piece to “Canopy” that will explore the effects of war on returned servicemen and women, as well as the communities they re-enter.