“Being good at this kind of work is not very beautiful.” This quote is taken from the trailer for the upcoming spy drama “Allied,” but it could have just as easily come from Boo Junfeng‘s “Apprentice.” In this prison drama, Junfeng presents the grim world of the executioner to suitably unnerving effect.
“Apprentice” is set in a maximum security prison in Singapore, where death row looms for criminals ranging from murderers to drug traffickers. It’s where reformed gang member Aiman (Firdaus Rahman) finds himself, on the right side of the law as a correctional officer. Young and ambitious, Aiman strives to move up the ranks, eventually getting his wish to be the assistant to the chief executioner Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su). As Aiman literally learns the ropes however, he gradually reveals other intentions. A tormented family history still haunts him, with direct links to this same hangman’s noose. But as he gets increasingly attached to this morbid world, his unusual coping mechanism may lead to unexpected consequences.
Indeed, Junfeng’s screenplay throws up a few surprises along the way of Aiman’s psychological journey. As we witness his apprenticeship, each new revelation is as disquieting as the next. Under Junfeng’s stark direction, no horrific detail is spared, from the process required for an effective and “humane” execution, to the secrets of Aiman’s past. And with the spare visual design – dim lighting and sterile surroundings – the film effectively evokes a foreboding atmosphere.
The solemnity maintained by the film truly overcomes you, solidified by Aiman’s character arc. As the film also follows him to his shared home with his sister, his inner turmoil is palpable. And her critical attitude towards his new obsession adds another dimension to the film’s themes of fate, morality and paternal legacy.
While the interactions between the siblings are fascinating, Junfeng rightly maintains the focus on the characters of Aiman and Rahim, excellently acted by Firdaus Rahman and Hanafi Su. Rahman is the perfect audience surrogate, conveying a duel sense of curiosity and shock. There’s both a fragility and strength to his performance that unravels in interesting ways. Meanwhile Su is formidable as Rahim, as unforgiving as he is wise. Though his character plays a thankless role, he ensures that his performance is anything but, showing enough nuance to reveal the cracks in his tough outer shell.
Indeed, even though Rahim is portrayed as the clear villain, Junfeng mostly avoids being didactic in his exploration of the ethics involved in the death penalty. The raw, plainspoken approach to the filmmaking serves the film particularly well in its powerful conclusion. And ultimately, regardless of which side you are on in the death penalty debate, “Apprentice” shows that its effects linger long after the punishment is inflicted. Like the film itself, the aftermath can be devastating.
“Apprentice” will be released in select theaters in 2017 by Film Movement.
“Apprentice” is the Singaporean Oscar submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.