Apprentice ★★★★

While imperfect, this Boo Junfeng film is still a solid win for Singapore cinema.

Apprentice is the second full feature film by Boo Junfeng, a director whose short in Seven Letters I admired highly. Parting was an elegant and beautifully short love letter to lost moments in time, and was, in my opinion, the best of the films in that anthology.

With Apprentice, Boo turns to an altogether darker subject. It is a film about the death penalty, but focusing on the subjective experiences of the executioner and the inmates on death row. The protagonist is a correctional officer named Aiman, who is befriended by the executioner, Rahim, of the fictional Larangan prison and begins, under his tutelage, to learn the craft of the noose. But Aiman, himself, is locked in the shackles of his family history – his father had been a condemned prisoner done in by Rahim years ago, and this fact hangs over his head.

The film’s treatment of the death penalty is the best thing about it. Boo’s unique aesthetic sensitivity ensures that the film never descends into the kind of moralising extemporising that might have characterised similar films of its subject matter. Instead, it is more multilayered and somehow more heart-wrenching an experience for that.

There is no normative judgment being made about the institution of the death penalty. Instead, it seems more like an immutable law of nature. Labels of just or unjust do not apply. Instead, what matters in Boo’s eyes are its effects on the people affected by it.

From the dread or fear or resignation of the condemned as they stumble along the corridor to the execution chamber in the pre-dawn light, to the scholar police officers (that the executioner makes no bones about disdaining, which made me smirk) and civil servants and religious figures who preside in silence over the deed, to the anguish of families that stand vigil with candles and pictures or scream and wail – to the whispered reassurances delivered by the executioners as they pull the lever that releases the trap-door: everyone associated with the act of hanging is affected by it in some way, mentally, physically, emotionally. It is these that the film is primarily preoccupied with depicting, and it does so in a way that gave me heart palpitations as I watched.

Another great thing about the film is its visual aesthetic. Boo’s asset is in his cinematographer’s eye. Each scene has a deliberateness to it, a visual completeness, always communicating something important, showing and not telling. Boo is good at doing that – using the visual language of the frame to deliver exposition, filling it with things that deliver the message and advance the plot in an elegant and efficient fashion and avoiding the kind of expository slog that bedevils many films.

But if Boo is good at visual and visceral storytelling, he is not so good at creating the stories that he is able to tell with such aesthetic aplomb. The plot, and especially Aiman’s story arc, still has that vestigial soap opera quality to it. You know the type: the over-telegraphed character motivations, the odd, plot-serving coincidences, the transparent maneuvering of plot threads to put characters in thematically meaningful situations.

Aiman’s personal character conflict is compelling but also a bit muddled, even though Boo has mentioned that it is ostensibly the emotional heart of the film. While it is necessary to make the film stand on its own two feet, at the same time it doesn’t really ring that true to me – Aiman’s need to apprehend his father’s death by taking on the instrumentality of his death. Aiman, by letting go of his gang past and becoming an officer of the law, has already abandoned his shackles – why does he seek out and cultivate as a surrogate father the man who took his father’s life? It seems more a kind of attempt to construct that perfect reflective metaphor, than naturalistic characterisation.

Late in the film, the morality of Aiman actually accepting the mantle of executioner becomes an operative issue, but the film isn’t ruminating here on the intrinsic morality of killing in the name of the law, but rather sets the dilemma as being whether Aiman will step away or embrace becoming the successor of the man who executed his father, which is a personal struggle, not so much a philosophical one. Frustratingly, the film never shows us the outcome, ending – quite predictably, I should say – at the point just before Aiman is supposed to pull the lever.

But Aiman’s story notwithstanding, Apprentice should be lauded for its craftsmanship, visual flair, and sensitivity to a topic that stands as a haunting emblem of the Singaporean judicial system. Apprentice is a film that tells us, in powerfully evocative terms, of the human cost of the death penalty without pontificating on whether that cost is justified to sustain our society.