This review of Boo Junfeng’s ‘Apprentice’ is six months late, as some circumstances have led it to be so. But in a way entirely not pre-meditated, writing this review at the end of the year creates an opportunity to reflect how much this film has actually set a new bar for local cinema in a year of some very strong works coming from both commercial and arthouse filmmakers.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the film is its ability to shed light on an inherently difficult and complex topic - the death penalty. We have seen many variations of social commentaries taking oblique jabs at devils that exist within culture, societal values, family life and identity, with films like 'Singapore Dreaming', 'Ilo Ilo' and '7 Letters'. But this film takes on an entire monster. It is virtually a risky walk down that hidden basement nobody has ventured into before. Or put more accurately, it is something many people are secretly fascinated with but lack the courage to dig deeper.
Offering a enlightened view of the issue of the death penalty and the process involved requires dogged research and maturity in storytelling. As demonstrated from his previous works, director Boo Junfeng's has a penchant for politically conscious stories and a level of understanding quite beyond his age. 'Apprentice' sits right on this same streak but edges much closer to that directorial pot of gold.
In a potentially polarising topic like this, the film shrewdly avoided sensationalising the issue or trying to coerce us into saying this is something to be abolished. It does what the main character, Aiman, does - walk a tight rope (pardon the pun) between hating the system and attempting to see some silver linings.
Aiman is transferred to the death row section of prison unexpectedly, to be an apprentice to the executioner Chief Rahim. Being groomed for the job, he struggles with a few dilemmas, chiefly that of wanting to attain something within the system and dealing with the fact that his own father was being executed here.
In fact, characters engaged in moral rebalancing are found across the entire film. Rahim's former assistant Joseph is so guilt-ridden after an execution job that he decides to step down. When death-row inmate, Randy's wife refuses to see him for the last time, chief Rahim decides lie to Randy that his wife bought him a new set of clothes for his final day. Even at the point of execution, Rahim coos gently to heavily-breathing Randy, 'I'm taking you to a better place.'
So the film has all the fixtures that make the death penalty a spine-chilling and harrowing idea - dark corridors, stale-looking walls, heady sound design with a particularly prominent gate-shutting motif, families in distress, a mean-looking executioner and a graphic depiction of the entire process from leaving the death-row cell to the post-execution autopsy. Yet on the other hand, Rahim's little humane gestures, his explanation of how he makes the death painless, his disarming ways with the inmates during their final days, casts a kinder filter on the matter. The result is the kind of unsettlement you get when you see a farmer nourish his cow only to know that he will eventually take its life as well.
The film hits the right note in sustaining this feeling throughout the film that something is right but wrong or wrong but right. Doesn't being emotionally straddled serve to edge our curiosity more? One must not forget that this is a psychological thriller and has been scripted in a way to tease and stir as much as to illuminate the issue at hand. And it knows there is more than a handful of people out there who will get a macabre kick out of watching this.
The fact that news from the grapevine on current shortlisting of films for the Best Foreign Language Oscar has mentioned 'Apprentice' as a serious contender is no surprise. Like Anthony Chen's 'Ilo Ilo' (also lensed by the same cinematographer Benoit Soler) 'Apprentice' is a highly polished as a piece of work. But unlike 'Ilo Ilo', this film has departed from the comfort of family chamber drama into the riskier realm of dealing with an institution.
Filmmakers are meant to be like diggers. Finding a captivating story should be a substantial part of the journey, because good craft, though able to find an appreciative audience, can get forgotten but not a good story. 2016 has taken us through nostalgia with Jack Neo’s ‘Long Long Time Ago’ and Tan Ai Leng’s ‘My Love, Sinema’, a navel-gazing understanding of identity with Eva Tang’s ‘The Songs We Sang’, play-pretending with the cosplay-themed ‘Young and Fabulous’, mindless fun with 'Lulu the Movie' and an esoteric journey of the heart with K Rajagopal’s ‘A Yellow Bird’. While acknowledging the artistic achievements or creative geniuses in these films, we have all somehow seen a bit of these somewhere before. 'Apprentice' on the other hand comes freshly cut from a different piece of cloth, bold enough to be in a sombre grey-washed visual palette. The fact that December screenings at The Projector have been still sold out, is an indication that many viewers do have the hearts to stomach some discomfort to see something truly novel.
- Jeremy Sing
*A version of this review appeared in SINdie Magazine 2017 / JAN-MAR
There will be 2 more screenings of 'Apprentice' on 26 Dec and 2 Jan at The Projector! Get your tickets now!
Written by SINdie