What makes a film uniquely Singaporean? That is the question any Singaporean filmmaker desires to create an answer for. What story could possibly encompass the myriad of characteristics that defines the Singaporean social fabric, and yet remain palatable to audiences both local and international?
One of the most contentious aspects Singapore is infamous throughout the world for is the strict death penalty, applicable equally to murderers and also drug traffickers, for whom a less strict punishment would be given in another country. It is a subject overseas audiences will be eager to explore, and the local crowd will appreciate, and that is what Singapore’s golden child in filmmaking, Boo Junfeng, has tackled head-on.
Apprentice is Junfeng’s second full-length feature film since his 2010 directorial debut, Sandcastle, which was the first Singaporean film to be invited to International Critics’ Week at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It is right up the alley of a filmmaker who was borne of Singapore’s strict and competitive education system (having graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic and LASALLE College of the Arts) yet consistently goes against established government narrative in his work (his 2009 short Tanjong Rhu addressed homosexuality in society).
Trailer of Apprentice
While he doesn’t necessarily explore the full range of social and moral issues associated with the subject in Apprentice, Junfeng does what he does best here: weaving a strong story that forces the viewer to take a stand on the issues and consider its implications.
Through a series of fortunate (or unfortunate) occurrences, Sergeant Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), a Malay prisons officer, finds himself working for an executioner, or hangman, Chief Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su) and learning the ropes (sorry) of the execution process. This all happens despite the reservations of his sister and the secret looming over Aiman’s head – his father had been executed by Chief Rahim early on in his illustrious 30-year career.
The driving force – the secret and its ramifications for Aiman – is what makes the film so delicious. At times, it plays not as a dark indie drama, but more of a diluted soap opera – the protégé seeking the approval of his boss, the critical brother disapproving his sister’s choice of love interest.
In particular, racial undertones thread heavily through the film, as the relationship between Aiman’s sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad) and her Caucasian boyfriend John is made a central issue as well. There is also brief mention of the widening chasm in civil service between scholars and non-scholars.
What would really provoke and unsettle the viewer, forcing him or her to think, however, is Su’s excellent delivery of the execution process in the claustrophobic hall leading to the execution chamber. From how to tie the hangman’s noose, to the discussion of the differences between Singapore’s execution process and other countries’, the viewer will undoubtedly feel a sense of unease and discomfort that is only exacerbated by Junfeng’s expert play with light and shadows.
All in all, this is a standout film, one that cements Junfeng as a Singaporean darling in the world of film. His style is exceptionally and unabashedly different than many of his contemporaries such as Anthony Chen, with a deeply reflective, controlled, contemplative movie that gives its viewers – both Singaporean and international – much food for thought.
“Apprentice” (96 minutes) is now in cinemas. More information about the film can be found on their Facebook page.
*featured image taken from Apprentice Facebook page.