'Apprentice': Cannes Review

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The second feature from Singaporean director Boo Junfeng (‘Sandcastle’) stars Malaysian veteran actor Wan Hanafi Su and impressive newcomer Fir Rahman.

A correctional officer’s relationship with the chief executioner of the prison where he works is fraught with tension and potential pitfalls in Apprentice, the second feature from Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng. Like the 32-year-old’s well-received first feature, the 2010 Cannes Critics’ Week contender Sandcastle, and earlier shorts such as Tanjong Rhu, this is again a story that conflates the deeply intimate and the political while exploring what family ties mean and how they relate to national and (particularly in this film) professional relationships and obligations. Though compatriot, colleague and Cannes darling Eric Khoo (My Magic, the first ever Singaporean film in competition) is again on board as an executive producer, there’s no question that this Un Certain Regard premiere’s directorial flair and thematic complexity — this is not your run-of-the-mill penal drama or anti-capital punishment pamphlet — should help further consolidate Boo’s own reputation as one of the region’s names to watch.

When Malay correctional officer Aiman (Fir Rahman, stoically intense) is asked, on his first day of work at the nation’s highest-security prison, why he’s chosen this profession, his answer is clear: He wants to help those who want to change. His outlook (if not his necessarily his religious affiliation) is a Christian one: Everyone, including criminals, deserves the possibility to atone for the sins and learn from their mistakes. Why he feels this way is one of the motors of the story and has to do with his family history, which is gradually revealed.  

Initially, Boo uses very short, broad-brushstroke scenes that jump back and forth between Aiman, who’s not yet 30, settling into his new job and the former soldier getting on with his rather commonplace domestic life with his older sister, Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), with whom he shares a modest suburban apartment. But this vision of stability — a new job with prospects, a fixed daily routine at home — starts to fissure in several places at the same time.

Suhaila hasn’t told Aiman yet she hopes to move to Australia soon with her steady boyfriend from Down Under, while at work, Aiman has started to get friendly with his Malay colleague Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su, dignified), the facility’s white-maned chief executioner. In perfect narrative symmetry, the latter fact is something Aiman initially hides from Suhaila, because (spoiler ahead) their father turns out to have been one of the countless criminals who was executed by Rahim.

Aiman’s fascination with Rahim is thus ambiguous. Why does he want to get closer to the executioner? Is it a form of morbid fascination or does he have a sinister plan in the back of his head? When the hangman’s assistant unexpectedly quits, Rahim asks the outwardly kind and hard-working Aiman to replace him and thus “learn the ropes,” so to speak. But how will his new job, with its foretold ending of every execution, allow the protagonist to “help those who want to change?”

Like in Sandcastle, the nation-state’s and a particular family’s history comingle and directly influence the present. But because the cast of characters is smaller here, there’s more time to explore the complex moral issues at the heart of the material. Apprentice sticks closely to Aiman’s compassionate point-of-view, even if the reasons behind his behavior are only gradually revealed. And audiences will discover with Aiman that Rahim isn’t the cold-blooded executioner he’d imagined but someone who takes pride in the humane way he treats the prisoners and who sees his task as simply the last cog in the Singaporean legal system that needs to turn in order for the full machine to work.

There are several third-act plot twists in the story that rely on a sense of poetic irony and allow Boo to delve deeper into the issues explored. The film also expertly uses the cinematography, courtesy of Benoit Soler (Ilo Ilo), and James Page’s production design, with its nervy, long shots down increasingly dark and labyrinthine corridors, to help suggest something of Aiman’s progressively more troubled psyche and his attempts to come to terms with his duties toward his profession, his homeland and his family without compromising his morals.

One of the film’s strongest selling points is how, in a very compact yet pleasingly dense way, it takes viewers into both the world of the executioners and the executed criminals’ family members who remain behind, two often almost ignored categories in films touching on capital punishment. It remains to be seen how the rather strict authorities in Singapore will react to a feature that explores and questions such issues. But there’s no denying that the country has another formidable filmmaking talent in Boo Junfeng.

Production companies: Akanga Film Asia, Peanut Pictures, Zhao Wei Films, Augenschein Filmproduktion, Cinema Defacto

Cast: Fir Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su, Mastura Ahmad, Koh Boon Pin, Nickson Cheng, Crispian Chan, Gerald Chew

Director: Boo Junfeng

Screenplay: Boo Junfeng, based on a story by Junfeng, Raymond Phathanavirangoon

Producers: Raymond Phathanavirangoon, Fran Borgia, Tan Fong Cheng

Executive producers: Eric Khoo, Pang Ho-Cheung, Subi Liang, Jim Rogers, Paige Parker

Co-producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Tom Dercourt, Sophie Erbs

Director of photography: Benoit Soler

Production designer: James Page

Costume designer: Meredith Lee

Editors: Natalie Soh, Lee Chatametikool

Music: Alexander Zekke, Matthew James Kelly

Sales: Luxbox

No rating, 96 minutes

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