THE EXECUTIONER’S APPRENTICE
The entertainment and production quality of Singapore films have been improving by leaps and bounds in recent times. Last year’s SG50 film, 7 Letters, was a delightful and thought-provoking piece that highlighted works from seven of our best homegrown directors. This year, one of the seven – Boo Junfeng of 2010’s Sandcastle fame, arguably just delivered the best local film of the year (thus far) with Apprentice, a fascinating, heartfelt and well-directed dramatisation of the uniformed personnel who work behind the walls – and gallows – of a fictitious prison in Singapore.
Here’s my newspaper article, “Hangman’s Tales”, which features the Apprentice director and cast’s thoughts on the bright side of working on a dark film:
SINGAPORE — In Singapore, if a person murders another person, he or she could face the death penalty. Within the prison system, however, there is a person whose duty is to take a life. And it was this desire to understand the psyche of a prison executioner that drove Boo Junfeng to make his latest film Apprentice.
“In many societies where the death penalty is practised, we often forget that there is a person, a human being, who is empowered to kill,” the writer-director explained. “I was curious to see how he sees himself in the moral and ethical equation. To me, that is what was interesting — the human story behind the job, more than the (death penalty) issue itself.”
The 32-year-old took four years to research his sophomore film, including interviewing former executioners and people who have had family members executed. “The conversations I have had with these people can be made into a lot of other films. But I had to distil all of them out to make the film I wanted.”
What resulted was Apprentice, which focuses on soft-spoken correctional officer Aiman, who finds himself taken under the wing of the prison’s charismatic chief executioner Rahim, and the man who pulled the lever on Aiman’s father, who was on death row.
Masterfully played by Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su, Rahim is a person who takes no delight in his job, but who handles it as professionally as he can. Aiman, played by Singapore actor Fir Rahman, wears his uniform with equal pride, but being a casualty of the death penalty, he is constantly grappling with authority and morality.
Filmed primarily in Singapore and partly in Australia, the film is an earnest dramatisation that offers a chilling and fascinating look at the human stories of the people working behind the walls, and especially in the gallows, of a fictitious local prison.
Mild-mannered Boo is to be credited for coaxing fine performances out of his leads, who have nothing but praise for the director.
“He may be soft-spoken and sentimental, but he was very firm on set,” said Wan. Apprentice is the first overseas film the Malaysian veteran has starred in.
Singapore actress Mastura Ahmad, who plays Aiman’s older sister, concurred. “The film has many layers for each character yet Junfeng will make time to come to you, telling you exactly what he wants. He gets things done not by yelling or shouting, but with much patience,” she said.
Fir recalled what it was like filming the prison yard scene in a defunct prison near Sydney, Australia, during winter. “Junfeng was telling us to ‘imagine you are in Singapore …’ to which we cried, ‘But Singapore isn’t this cold what!’” the actor-cum-physical trainer said with a laugh, confessing they had to pile on heavy blankets the moment filming stopped. “I also have to make sure I have the right haircut and that I don’t put on weight. I have to look the same as I did, like, two weeks ago!”
In May, Apprentice held its world premiere at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. It was one of two Singaporean films at the prestigious event this year, the other being K Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird, which premiered at International Critics’ Week. Fir felt “very honoured” to hit the festival in his first lead role and first feature film, while Mastura was overwhelmed by “the amazing response from the public and media”. And Wan not only held the distinction of being the first Malaysian actor to grace the red carpet at Cannes, he was also widely recognisable because of his signature long white hair and was “treated like a superstar”.
Apprentice did not win its Un Certain Regard category, but Boo is not losing any sleep over it. “If we start defining how good a film is purely by awards, I think we will miss a lot of good films. If you understand how competitions work, it is quite often decided by a jury and is entirely subjective,” he reasoned.
What was most important to him is having the right platform to show his film.
“The reviews have been very positive and very encouraging,” he said. “In the four years making Apprentice, I learnt a lot personally — not only as a film-maker but also as a person. I’ve grown to understand things that I never understood, seen facets of humanity that I haven’t seen before.”
Apprentice opens in Singapore cinemas on June 30.
(Other cities worldwide – UK, Poland, France, Turkey, Hong Kong, etc – please check your local arthouse listings.)
This article was originally published in TODAY newspaper on June 28, 2016.