SIX months ago, Boo Junfeng found himself in Cannes for the second time in his young career as a filmmaker. His latest directorial effort, Apprentice, made the Cannes Film Festival‘s Un Certain Regard selection, cementing his position as one of Southeast Asia’s prominent film directors at the moment.
Apprentice tells the story of prison employee Aiman as he starts work at Larangan, a Singaporean prison facility. At his latest posting, he catches the attention of executioner Rahim, who takes Aiman in as a protegee.
As Apprentice plays out, details about Aiman’s life are slowly revealed. His father was executed in Larangan when Suhaila was still a child. Suhaila is leaving for Australia to break free from the constraints of their life in Singapore. Rahim is keen to guide Aiman through the execution process, despite the latter’s quiet reservation about pulling the lever.
By the end of its 96-minute runtime, Apprentice shapes out as a tense slow-burner which provokes thought on the death penalty.
Junfeng’s country of origin, Singapore, still carries out capital punishment on serious offences including drug trafficking and homicide. Death sentences are mandatory in some cases — those caught with more than 1000 grams of weed are subject to long drop hanging in Changi Prison.
The last execution in the country took place two weeks ago. On 18 November 2016, Nigerian citizen Chijoke Stephen Obioha was hanged after being caught trafficking more than two kilogrammes of cannabis in 2007.
But Junfeng insists that his film is not about the death penalty, though he hopes it will strike conversation on the matter. Apprentice does not care to sway public opinion with black and white arguments or obvious villains. The introspective drama which keeps it so engaging comes from the complexity of Aiman’s dilemma as a man of transitions.
Though beleaguered by the circumstances — a sudden background check could reveal his father’s identity; Rahim’s accident propels him into the role of his nightmares — Aiman has no other option but to continue forward, as if on a conveyor belt through the system.
“If you want to change hearts and minds you cannot rely on rhetoric,” explained Junfeng at the Malaysian premiere hosted by local publishing house FIXI last Tuesday. “I was hoping Apprentice can provide a different point of entry into the subject.”
“After audiences watch the film [the death penalty] is no longer out of sight or out of mind, and hopefully whatever decision they come up with is a more informed one.”
Developed over the course of five years, Apprentice was initially written in English. The choice to translate it into Malay resulted from the team’s decision to cast based on chemistry rather than how well actors fit physical descriptions of their characters.
After auditions in Malaysia and Singapore, the creative team settled on Singaporean television actor Fir Rahman, acclaimed Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su (Lelaki Harapan Dunia, Hari-hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman) and Singaporean actress Mastura Ahmad (Banting, Salawati).
Difficulty in the filming process arose when scouting for a suitable prison. Deeming Singapore’s very own Changi Prison too “new and sterile”, Junfeng recalled wanting to shoot in Malaysia.
“We were hoping Pudu Jail would be available. We applied to shoot here but were perhaps too honest with the story we wanted to tell,” he spoke with his trademark soft voice and sheepish smile. “We were told that our project cannot be supported.”
In the end, the Apprentice team settled for one of South Australia’s many abandoned prisons.
Apprentice is a huge departure from the contemporary Malay-language filmmaking which pervades the region. Junfeng tends towards visual storytelling over expository dialogue — Aiman smashes his recurring childhood cupboard to pieces upon the reveal of his past — while his story steers clear from heightened drama, explicit moral lessons and romantic subplots.
Subdued, sparse and contemplative, Apprentice is one of the year’s most notable Asian releases and one to catch in cinemas soon.
Apprentice was released in selected Malaysian cinemas on 24 November 2016. Catch the film at GSC Mid Valley, GSC 1 Utama, GSC Pavilion KL, GSC Gurney Plaza in Penang, and GSC Dataran Pahlawan in Malacca. For screening times, check out Cinema Online!