Singapore (2016) Dir. Boo Junfeng
Let’s get all the Lord Sugar, “You’re Fired!” related gags out our systems before proceeding with this review – Boo Junfeng’s dark prison drama looks at the moral issues surrounding the death penalty in Singapore from two different perspectives.
Malay officer Sergeant Aiman (Firdaus Rahman) is transferred to Larangan maximum security prison assigned to the prison’s workshop. Whilst clearing out a storeroom, Aiman meets the Chief Executioner of thirty years, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su). Rahim needs a new rope and Aiman helps him buy one, starting a rapport between the two, and with an execution coming up, Rahim requests Aiman be his new apprentice.
But this doesn’t sit well with Aiman’s older sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), with whom he lives, putting a strain on their relationship. Having taken Aiman under his wing and taught him the ins and outs of the job, Rahim is shocked to discover a secret Aiman has kept from him, leading to an unexpected conclusion.
To go further into the cause Aiman’s deception is to spoil a key point of the mystery behind his transfer to Larangan. This is actually revealed twenty minutes into the film but still doesn’t explain everything but at least sets our imaginations off as to where we are heading – and it isn’t as obvious as it might seem.
Apprentice is Boo Junfeng’s second feature film, his 2010 debut Sandcastle being the first film from Singapore to be invited to play at Critics Week at Cannes. Following suit, this film was screened as part of the Un Certain Regard block whilst Boo himself was honoured at the 21st Busan International Film Festival with the Rising Director accolade.
One can sense a maturity in Boo’s direction beyond his 33 years, and he approaches the heavy moral themes presented here with a similar thoughtfulness and empathy, maintaining the ambiguity about Aiman’s feelings right up until the end. Equally important is Rahim’s perspective as the man who performs the executions, also painted in shades of grey due to the burden of his job.
Singapore is one of twenty-five countries that still sanction the use of capital punishment but Boo avoids justifying it or condemning it, yet through his clinical explanations of the whole procedure one can’t help but form an odd sort of grudging admiration for anyone who can pull the lever so dispassionately in the name of duty.
That may read a little odd taken out of context, but Rahim reveals himself to be a very principled man who takes his job and the treatment of the inmates seriously, considering himself “humane” for delivering a swift ending while other countries prefer prolonged methods to ensure suffering and humiliation. Whatever your thoughts are on capital punishment this makes for an interesting point of discussion.
As Aiman gets to know his superior, the cracks in his composed demeanour slowly give way to his compassionate side, exposed by his insistence that the final meal is perfect and in one case, buying new clothes for an inmate on the pretence that they were from his ashamed family. Similarly, Boo chooses not to portray the condemned as criminals either, regardless of their crimes, adding an air of melancholy to their final moments.
Rahim’s internal reconciliations with what his does only surface when he discovers the information Aiman has kept from him which triggers a bitter confrontation. For all the pride he takes in ensuring a dignified end for his prisoners, Rahim defers resolutely to the order of the judicial system, so if they found guilty they are guilty – it is not his place to judge.
Aiman is keen to raise this topic with Rahim, his curiosity born from the secret he holds that also drives a wedge between him and his sister. Suhaila’s Australian ex-pat boyfriend proposes and wants to return to his homeland with her, and Aiman accepting the hangman’s assistant job against her wishes is the final straw, pushing her into leaving.
The climax of the film is fraught with bitter irony yet fails to deliver a resolute answer to Aiman’s motives for taking the job with Rahim in the first place. We are – if you pardon the pun – left hanging on the final shot but it is really the only way Boo could have ended this film. It may seem like one more question to be asked, but it is an important one that forces the audience to ponder what they would do in the same situation.
Boo’s presentation of this divisive morality play is akin to a dark psychological thriller, mostly through Aiman’s borderline stalker behaviour early on in trying to suss out Rahim. The use of shadow is prominent in disguising Aiman’s stealthy movements in the prison yet serve as a divide between him and Suhaila in their tiny flat, providing somewhere for Aiman to sulk in after another fight.
During the inmate’s walk to the gallows the whole scene is played out in total silence bar the sounds of the footsteps on concrete. This quietly dramatic and ominous moment is punctuated by the alarming swiftness of the actual execution, and in a split-second it may be over for the inmate but for the audience our hearts are still pounding fast and heavy.
The dynamic of the grizzled hangman and his neophyte apprentice is matched by the performances – veteran Wan Hanafi Su carries himself with the same gravitas of Rahim’s senior position. His crowning moment comes during the showdown with Aiman, a raw and compelling scene in which Rahim finally lays his soul bare. Newcomer Firdaus Rahman is similarly stoic as the brooding Aiman, showing promise in his debut role.
Boo Junfeng clearly has a lot to say about Singapore’s penal system with Apprentice but chooses to stay within self-imposed boundaries to avoid preaching on the subject. A slow burn of a film that builds to a taut denouement, this is a provocative yet empathetic psychological essay of a difficult job.