Featuring songs from Culture Club and Depeche Mode, the new South African musical Kanarie is a film unlike any other you will have seen before. Offering a combination of fish-out-of-water comedy, coming-of-age drama, and surprisingly biting commentary on war, this is a movie you will want to put on your radar immediately.
Set in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, the film follows a young man conscripted in the army to be a “Canary”, a member of the South African Defence Force Choir and Concert Group, all the while facing confusion about his identity and sexual orientation. Although the coming-of-age story isn’t anything new, approaching it within the context of the South African military is a unique spin.
Unfortunately, the movie isn’t fully able to take advantage of its setting. Although there are some scenes that are undeniably political, such as one very effective one in the middle of the film that questions the ethics of the characters performing for an unjust military, the movie largely ignores the political context in which it is set. The amount of times in which the film directly addresses the racist foundations of the war at the focus of the movie can be counted on one hand, and that is disappointing.
That said, the film does handle the sexual orientation aspects of the storyline quite well. Homophobia was very much rampant in South Africa during the time in which the movie was set (homosexuality was a crime in the country until 1994), although this is not a topic in their history that is frequently explored. Granted, the bare minimum in a film set during Apartheid is to talk about racism, but the movie should be praised for shining a spotlight on a group of people whose story has went mostly unheard.
The character development in the film is very good. The protagonist, Johan, is extremely compelling from the beginning of the movie, his struggles with his identity are introduced in a way that is subtle early on and becomes very hard-hitting by the final scenes. His personality is also extremely charismatic. Schalk Bezuidenhout brings Johan to the screen in a way that is endlessly fun to watch, but also very complex and nuanced.
Additionally, many of the film’s supporting characters are very well-developed and likable. Hannes Otto plays one of the protagonist’s squadmates, and is also the romantic interest in the movie. The relationship between the two characters feels very natural and is an excellent method of developing the identity crisis at the center of the film. Germandt Geldenhuys plays another squadmate, the comedic relief character, and does the lovable goof archetype well.
One of the more troublesome things about this movie is that the pacing isn’t as effective as it likely should be. Although the writers of the film do a great job of crafting a story that is compelling, the movie could have been significantly tighter. The runtime is right around two hours, and while everything we see on screen in interesting to an extent, there is a bit of fluff that could have been cut with minimal impact to the story.
The director and co-writer of the film, Christiaan Olwagen, infuses the movie with an infectious level of energy and style. The flaws in execution, like occasionally choppy editing, can mostly be forgiven because of some of the more ambitious stylistic decisions that Olwagen makes. There are a few scenes in particular that are so memorably shot and edited that they may rank among the best of the year so far.
The use of music is also very good too. This isn’t a traditional musical in the sense that the characters don’t break out into musical numbers randomly — the movie does focus on a choir after all, so it does make sense that they would be singing. However, it would have been nice to see more music. The parts of the film that incorporate Culture Club and Depeche Mode are surely the best, so why not have more of that?
Kanarie truly is a unique and ambitious movie, so despite its flaws, it stands out as one of the better foreign imports to come out of the year so far. Don’t go in expecting this to be a light and bouncy musical, though, as the story has some very hard-hitting moments.
Kanarie is now on DVD and VOD.