Author: George Po Chun Huang
Israeli film Yossi & Jagger (2002) presented the suffocating environment for gay men in the military. A new South African film, Canary (Kanarie, 2018), depicts a similar struggle for gay men in the military in the 1980s. Different contexts, same issues.
In 1985, bearing extraordinary musical talents, 18-year-old Johan joins a Christian military choir and gets the nickname "Canary." He has been aware of his gay identity long before, a feeling that terrified him before joining the military. Fortunately, he meets another gay member of the choir, Rudolf, a funny and optimistic guy that helps Johan overcome his fears.
Given the film is set within a choir, music is without doubt the main focus of the film. At the outset when Johan first appears, the classic gay song "Smalltown Boy" has already built up a dynamic fun atmosphere, and pointed out where he comes from - a small town. When Johan goes to audition for the choir and performs the Christian spirit "Lovely Moon," his singing skills overwhelm everyone. Moreover, he sings out his lungs out and expresses his inner conflict the religious anti-gay lyrics: "Ease my exhausted heart."
Anyone who has gone through the military service can feel empathy for Johan when he first arrives at the training center, being stripped naked, scolded, and forced to sleep in bunk beds. There is a scene where a soldier meets an officer in the shower while he is cleaning: the naked officer slurs homophobic jokes while the soldier is brushing the floor, being forced by the officer to do push-ups. A sign of the closeted homosexuality in the military and the ignorance and hatred within the military corps.
Another choir member, Wolfgang, also loves Boy George as much as Johan does. The two find themselves attracted each other. However, as a Christian, Johan is still conflicted about his own gay identity. If he chooses to be openly gay, he has to give up all his beliefs; if he chooses religion, it means that he has to murder his true self.
Johan, Wolfgang, Rudolf, and a straight Canary go to a nightclub during the weekend. Johan imagines himself to be Boy George, and the people besides him David Bowie, Prince, and other gay icons. However, when he is on the way to the toilet, he encounters a gay couple who reminds him again of his fear to come out. Afterwards, their straight fellow choir mate stands up to the man who calls them "sissy," which makes him regain a sense of ease.
When the Canary is on tour, they live stay at a homestay. Living in the same room, Johan and Wolfgang start getting intimate. However, the are interrupted by the owner knocking on their door, which makes Johan feels even more guilty about his identity. During the next scene where the military priest is preaching resitance to "Satan" and his vices, Johan, although apparently defeated, he is imagining Wolfgang and him kissing outside the church.
Johan and Wolfgang decide to play "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," a popular song frin Culture Club, breaking the ice, making both of them finally fall in love with each other. They also discuss their connection with Boy George, who had not yet come out of their closet during their time. Johan identifies with him, a figure negating himself.
1985's South Africa is going through the apartheid. Although the film does not engage in this tragic history very deeply, it does show, through dialogues and the black/white images, that conservative and traditional power is the main cause of perverted values. The only difference between gay people and black people is that the former are murdered without second thoughts. Johan initially plans to come out to his sister, but eventually goes back to the closet because of her homophobia.
Having been appointed as the program committee leaders, Johan, Wolfgang, and Rudolf aim to accept themselves through the help of an open-minded priest in the military, who proposes to sing another song, "Victims," as the choir track. Although denied by conservative priests, he has already expressed what he feels towards God and himself. His Christian identity finally can coexist peacefully with his gay identity, and the love between Wolfgang and him perseveres as well. Johan breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and the end of the film,a making the audience engage deeply with what he says when he finishes the running training: "results give processes meaning."