By Satpal Kaler
(630 words, 6 minute read)
Back in university, my Botswanian friend told me that there is a high demand for executioners back in her country, because very few locals want to do the job. They see it as murder; even if it is done in the name of the law.
Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice is a film about executioners. While countless prison films follow the story of the prisoners, Boo Junfeng focuses on those who mete out punishment, and the detrimental effect this has on them.
Grimly lit with harsh, macabre shadows, the film is beautifully shot. While the film is set in bustling, fast-paced Singapore, it is alienated from these urban rhythms. It feels tight and intimate.
The film follows Sergeant Aiman and his relationship with the veteran executioner Chief Warden Rahim, who has executed over 600 people in his long career – including Aiman’s father. Wan Hanafi Su as Chief Rahim steals the show in every one of his scenes, with a calm and collected persona barely disguising a strong undercurrent of rage. He does not enjoy taking lives away but does it as his job requires, seeing himself as compassionate.
Firdaus Rahman portrays Aiman as a conflicted soul trying to find meaning from his situation. He becomes an executioner but suffers angst over the loss of his father by execution, and the film captures this lonely, ambivalent crisis.
Often, modern blockbusters spoon-feed viewers by laying out all the information for audiences and not leaving any room for interpretation or thought. Apprentice goes in the opposite direction by leading a narrative that requires the audience to connect the dots themselves. However, it perhaps goes too far in that direction, leaving behind what feels a poorly paced film. It feels as though the film’s development has been left behind in the director’s mind rather than appearing in the final cut.
Apprentice is an introspective film that functions by playing with the internal chaos of the protagonist. However, the portrayal of Aiman’s internal stakes are far too implicit and only anchor intermittent interest. There is not enough detail in the portrayal of Aiman losing his sense of self, while external stakes that threaten him only appear in the final act. As a result, Aiman’s journey feels like a backdrop, something that would be more fitting as a subplot to support a larger narrative.
Aiman’s relationship with his sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad) is a key part of the film, but the lack of chemistry between the actors ruins the emotional impact it could hold. They seem merely to portray an awkward brother-sister relationship in which neither of them seem to be comfortable, causing their scenes together to feel phoney.
Owing to the setting of the film and the arc of the protagonist, we would expect the film to open up a discussion on the morality of capital punishment and possibly take a stand on either side. However, a mere few minutes are spent on this controversial topic in a heated argument between Chief Rahim and Sergeant Aiman. It’s so brief that it would seem better if the film avoided the discussion completely.
Boo Junfeng has retained his intimate storytelling style from his first feature Sandcastle. However, Ern the protagonist from Sandcastle, had multiple venues to channel his troubles, which are all developed to create a tightly-knit narrative. This is something that Apprentice lacks as a whole.
Instead of overreaching to expand the scale of Apprentice, Boo Junfeng employs minimalism in its detailed camera work, design, and music, and excels in crafting a tense and morbid environment fitting for a prison film. However, the story creates more questions than it answers, and lacks characters that have enough mass to make the film feel complete.
This review, reproduced with the kind permission of the writer and publisher, first appeared on Critics Republic, a website of reviews and criticism about performing arts productions in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley, and elsewhere in Malaysia. Read more reviews from Critics Republic here.