Boo Junfeng’s name has been making the rounds in Singapore, most recently for directing that advert featuring a long distance relationship made possible through Singtel. It’s no surprise; after all, he’s one of the nation’s best, following his sensitive coming of age film debut Sandcastle in 2010.
In his latest film, which premiered at the Cannes Festival this year, we follow Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), a young Malay man who lives with his older sister (Mastura Ahmad), and happens to work in the prison service. His curiosity gets the better of him when he begins to take an interest in Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), the chief hangman who also happened to hang Aiman’s father, incarcerated before Aiman was born. Without revealing his ancestry, Aiman befriends Rahim and becomes his assistant, in a bid to get to know his deceased father better.
Apprentice takes a critical look at multiple themes and issues, such as the necessity of capital punishment, the emotional weight that comes with being in the prison service, and how the past doesn’t stay in the past, and haunts families for years to come.
After witnessing his first hanging, Aiman ends up arguing with Rahim about the morality and lack of compassion of his job, to which Rahim angrily retorts that his job is to ensure a quick and painless death, even when he is utterly disgusted by inmates’ crimes. A hangman is a job like any other, but when clouded by the emotions that surround a death, can become emotionally taxing in its own right, and the temptation to deviate from the norm arises.
Aiman is in a way, a prisoner of his own, leading an isolated existence, transiting between work and home each day with little to no outside interaction. His self-imposed imprisonment is a result of his father’s criminal record, which limits his security clearance and places the shadow of criminality across his entire life, leading to gang activities and drug use in his youth. His sister despises this existence and feeling of entrapment, and unlike Aiman, leaves for Australia with her fiance (Sean Tobin), leaving Aiman completely, utterly alone.
Aiman is by no means a bad worker though; he’s probably one of the friendlier, compassionate servicemen to enter the facility, with shots that reveal him telling inmates to wear their shoes properly or beware of the heavy machinery, lest they injure themselves, a more obvious type of compassion we’re used to seeing, in contrast to Rahim’s quick, painless deaths and reassurances that he’s sending his inmates to a better place.
Aiman is a paradox – the son of a death row murderer and the apprentice of a hangman. Apprentice never makes it entirely clear what his intentions of joining the prison service are, whether it’s to instill a discipline in him that places him as far from his father as possible, or because he wants to be close to the palace his father spent his final days. It is this same ambiguity that leads to his parentage being questioned, and almost being sent to the internal security department for investigation.
By following Aiman’s point of view throughout the entire film, as an audience member, I was led to understand his sense of confusion, and the fear and loathing he felt as a result of his past. We sympathize with him, although perhaps this point of view is a little skewed, as Rahim ends up a foil for Aiman’s holier-than-thou statements. Firdaus Rahman has delivered an outstanding performance as a morally tortured individual, and I only wish the film ended less abruptly, just to see where Aiman’s path took him.
Apprentice is also a film that is unabashedly, quintessentially Singaporean. Boo is an expert at this, carefully inserting details like the familiar call of a Koel bird in the morning, when Aiman attends his first hanging, as well as melancholic shots that linger on the Singaporean landscape as a public bus passes by. Boo’s direction is not only thoughtful, but also beautiful. Take any freeze frame from Apprentice, and it’s almost assured to be a work of art, from the low angle shots of the barbed wire surrounding the prison, to Aiman and Rahim sharing a conversation while smoking together, the smog wafting around the frame. Boo also expertly builds tension for scenes, such as the first hanging, wherein the camera follows Aiman’s process from bringing Randy (Crispian Chan) from his cell to the noose, and is realistic, complete with a sharp snap of the neck when he is hanged. Boo does not spare the audience the gruesome and dark details of execution, and this is what makes the film hurt that much more, even lending the audience visual support when Aiman obsessively washes his hands and even throws up after the hanging.
All in all, Apprentice is a film that has a lot to say about the notion of capital punishment and imprisonment, but never really supports its arguments fully except through an appeal to emotion. Thankfully, it does this well, with the support of its extremely capable cast and director, and I walked away from the film with a heavy heart and thoughts about those dealing with the fallout left from another’s mistakes. Watch the show, then let us know what you thought about it at HERE or comment below.
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