Apprentice (Film Review)

“F**king scholars.”

If the chuckles from the audience are anything to go by, Boo Junfeng has once again demonstrated his skill in capturing popular sentiment.

And yet he likes to encapsulate these responses in forgotten and unpopular (even controversial) environments. In this case, a prison.

Larangan Prison is a maximum security security fortress, and houses “punishments cells, and death row cells!” ASP James Tan (Koh Boon Pin) intones. His charge, Sergeant Aiman (Fridaus Rahman), takes this in and agrees to his duties with relish, and it’s later that we find out there might be more to his agenda than just wanting to reform the inmates.

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He gets himself into the radar of Senior Chief Warden Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), a bold white-maned lion of a man who roars his orders, and whose bite may come from the fact that he also happens to handle the macabre task of being the Chief Executioner.

Aiman inevitably gets drawn into his relationship with his mentor and under his tutelage, begins to “learn the ropes” from the veteran. As the story unravels, we find out more about his motives – to do with his parental past – that come back to haunt him at the gut.

Apprentice works like an undertow, layering waves of family drama from Aiman and his older sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), with his work complications and decisions. Even though Boo denies this is a film about capital punishment, the topic traps the characters like the dismal prison walls in the film. As shoes clop on cold cement floors, ropes tighten with force and wooden trapdoor releases with a whopping thud, we experience a routine that echoes that of our own real-life hangman Darshan Singh since 1959. The film presents moments that will tug at us unexpectedly, making us question this absolute form of punishment, and most importantly, how it affects the people who survive the victims.

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Wan Hanufi Su lends a presence to the role of executioner with definite gravity. His candour and compassion is curiously observed by Fridaus Rahman, who puts in a admirable counter-performance. It makes us think, how does one live with himself on a daily basis, being a sanctioned murderer?

Though there are gaps which took me out with its physical acting (Fridaus’s creeping around at times was almost comical), he manages to stay believably intense and complicated. As both characters come head to head with questions about morality, kindness, reality and judgement, it unravels their bonds and delivers a sudden death – like that of their doomed inmates.

But what captured me the most were the scenes involving the death-row inmates’ family. As dawn breaks, a woman and her elderly mother wails and collapses at the wired fencing when they hear the ominous trapdoor lever. In another scene, a gathering featuring the twin sons of another executed, burns a haunting image of regret and loss amid flickering candle flames and religious papers. Then came my favourite moment when the passing cabbie remarked with unintended levity, “what’s happening there?” It felt like a gavel pronouncing sentence on the ignorance of our citizens, as we fail to grasp and question the consequences and necessity of death penalties in this day and age.

Boo has always been deft at introspective pieces and Apprentice is well-worth its place as a screening for the Un Certain Regard section of the 69th Cannes Film Festival.

P.S. Erm, is it just me, or does the beginning feel like a trailer for a horror movie?

Apprentice is now showing at all Golden Village and Filmgarde cinemas.

Apprentice on Facebook

All photos: Peanut Pictures

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