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Photo: Joseph Nair

Appraising the Apprentice

By Dan Koh

What were you doing on 20 May, Friday morning?

In the blue light of first dawn, crickets chirped steadily, a lone Asian koel bird hopefully called out and your neighbour stirred, hacking and hawking away in the toilet. Buses began running, newspapers dropped on doorsteps, building gates creaked open. A prisoner was loaded on to a van and taken to court. He was hanged later that day.

For a country that hangs criminals regularly and very recently—over 400 since 1991—and boasted possibly the world's highest execution rate per capita in the late 1990s, it is puzzling that the corpus of Singapore literature on capital punishment remains slim, recent and suppressed. In 2005, the play Human Lefts was censored of all references to the death penalty a day after Nguyen Tuong Van's execution, followed by author Alan Shadrake’s prison sentencing for contempt of court due to his variable Once A Jolly Hangman (2010). Only the plays Good People (2007) and Senang (2014), which deal tangentially with the death penalty, Alfian Sa’at’s harrowing short story "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Hanging" (2010), Seelan Palay and Shikin Ali's mixed-media exhibition CAPITAL (2011) and more lately the play reading of Judgement Day (2015) have escaped unscathed, if little-experienced by the wider public. This enforcedly unreflective state of affairs, a by-product of our helpless acceptance of capital punishment as a non-issue, when Singapore is one of the last 36 nations to actively retain it, has even allowed the National Gallery Singapore to entice visitors in its similarly unquestioned promotional video, titled ‘What Will You See?’, with: “Criminals were once sentenced to hang here / Iconic masterpieces now hang on the walls instead”.

Quietly blowing open this dispiriting collection of works is Boo Junfeng's Apprentice. Its long-awaited release comes at an unprecedentedly productive time for the Singapore prison film, what with fellow Cannes Film Festival debutant A Yellow Bird by K. Rajagopal, Ivan Ho's upcoming comedy Take 2 and Tan Shijie's haunting segment in Distance. Could SG50 have sparked off an inadvertent examination of the state-sponsored and largely mandatory retribution that supposedly props up our success and security? Boo's sophomore film successfully transcends the potential pitfalls of its divisive subject by penetrating into the very soul of crime and punishment in order to meditate upon our everyday culpability. Despite what The Straits Times may suggest, Apprentice does not in the least put “a human face on the abstract idea of capital punishment”, but reveals its inhumane, barbaric nature and the untold sufferings that visit even its abettors.

Photo: Meg White
Photo: Meg White

The multi-country co-production traces the fraught, voyeur-to-partaker journey of its titular character, 28-year-old correctional officer Aiman (Geng Rebut Cabinet's Firdaus Rahman), as he is transferred to the maximum-security, fictional-but-all-too-real Larangan Prison. Laden with a personal and unresolved link to the death penalty, Aiman forms a budding and all-consuming mentorship with magnetic chief executioner Rahim (the masterful Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su in his first movie and overseas role) that threatens the relationship with his Australia-bound sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), his last family connection, in addition to his precarious self-identity. 

A violent teenage gangster made good, Aiman joins the prison force, after a disciplining stint as an army regular, in order to “make [prisoners] better people… those who want to change”, a rehabilitative goal that parallels part of the Singapore Prison Service's mission. Trained in a vocational institute, he and the Company Sergeant Major-like Rahim—complete with endless cigarettes, tasteless jokes and helmet-like white hair—belong to an older generation and underclass of Singaporeans. They bond over their mutual hatred of scholars, Singapore's new and influential technocrats, the cause of Aiman leaving the army and Rahim's complaint that “nowadays there's no one tough enough” to succeed him. Most significantly, after his assistant suddenly quits, Rahim recognises a kindred spirit in his ostensible heir apparent, telling Aiman, “You have morals”. 

That seemingly straightforward, simple statement lies at the dark heart of Apprentice. Rahim's expert role as a veteran executioner raises troubling questions about the nature of justice and mercy: from the 65-year-old sergeant’s steadfast belief that “what's important is to face the consequences” laid down by the court, to his not-so-white lie to a death row prisoner that his estranged wife has forgiven him; from his reassuring, gentle and almost paternal guiding and coaxing of the lamb to the slaughter (“Don't worry…I'm sending you to a better place”, a phrase of Singapore's long-time hangman Darshan Singh), to his careful and self-proclaimed “humane” craft of ensuring that the criminal hangs “quick and painless”, without prolonged strangulation or decapitation. While witnessing him in action, the perverse thought hit me that if I was sent to the gallows, I would gladly throw myself upon the small mercies of Rahim—the Arabic word, fittingly, for “merciful”.

While some critics felt Apprentice lacked a unifying meaning or clear-cut stand in regard to its controversial subject, the ‘should-capital-punishment-be-abolished-or-not’ debate to me is circumvented as soon as we are confronted with an execution. Following an in-depth and strangely fascinating tutorial and initiation into the technicalities behind a “10 upon 10” hanging—the ideal thickness and type of rope, along which vertebrate to place the noose’s knot, the correct formula of rope length to body weight—Boo places us front and centre of a hanging and its aftermath that are all the more shocking, unflinching and climatic in their lack of forewarning and cut-away. The scene, about three-quarters in, is hopefully the closest I’ll get to George Orwell’s infamous epiphany in “A Hanging” (1931): “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” The prisoner here, Randy Tan (Crispian Chan), buckles and hyperventilates during his painfully long approach to the gallows, and in the autopsy afterwards, I was struck by his graceful, pianist fingers sticking out of the evidence sheet, like the “childish feet, tilted, dangling”, of the “dwarfish boy-man” after execution in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965). To me, Apprentice only gains in complexity in its humanistic surpassing of direct questions of capital punishment’s morality and efficacy. As Boo shared at the Singapore gala premiere, “My only hope with this film is to raise the right and important questions… If I had a message, I would just say it”.

Photo: Meg White
Photo: Meg White

Apprentice’s lasting resonance, then, lies in its subtle and damning revelation of the blood on all our hands for living with our justice system. Partially filmed in disused Australia jails, the film through clever editing and lensing cuts down to a discomfiting closeness the gap not only between the two countries, but also between so-called civilisation and the penal institutions that police its moral borders. From the get-go, Boo, cinematographer Benoit Soler (Ilo Ilo) and editors Lee Chatametikool (Cemetery of Splendour) plus Natalie Soh (In the Room) consistently parallel the worlds and architecture of the jailhouse complex and heartland estates. In one breathtaking, collapsing shot, we slowly pan from the electric fence, where the families of the never-ending stream of the next-to-be-executed keep vigil, to a uniform Singapore road, rumbling with indifferent traffic, just a stone’s throw away. In accordance with tracking shots of a condemned prisoner’s last march to the trapdoors and a point-of-view experience through a Manila hemp execution hood, the deceptively simple opening shot of a landscape at daybreak, as seen through the blades of a ventilation fan, repeated later with a view of the shadow it casts after execution, effectively erases any dichotomy between us versus them, victim and prosecutor, criminal and citizen.

A triumph of intense restraint and sustained, almost horror-like suspense and claustrophobic mood, Apprentice sets new standards for Singapore cinema. Far surpassing Boo’s nostalgia-drenched debut Sandcastle (2010), it succeeds by never letting up, in no small part due to the sensitive work of production designer James Page (Canopy), who includes items as small and telling as the 1990s stickers of hyper-masculine yet quotidian emblems like army tanks and Popeye on Aiman’s broken childhood cabinet; supervising sound editor Ting Li Lim (In the House of Straw), who crafts an overwhelmingly confined, heightened and uncomfortable, if one-note, atmosphere (never have I been made so achingly aware of the tensile strain of rope and every reverberating footfall plus clanging door); and the star bit-turn of Koh Boon Pin (12 Storeys) as Aiman’s superior—he is the ultimate, chillingly efficacious bureaucrat, conveying as an unshakeable vessel shadowy directives from the corridors of power above.

If Apprentice is to be nitpicked, its steady build-up of tension, perhaps too monotonous in mood to some (an even bolder, purely atmospheric film would have jettisoned narrative arc), is let down by an oddly anti-climatic and suspense-free ending. After journeying this far and hard with Aiman, we surely deserve a more fulfilling conclusion than an apparent and rather cheap shock. As with Sandcastle, the main protagonist also suffers slightly from a lack of meaningful character development. Try as he might, Firdaus is not given enough to pierce the central, cipher-like nature of this sphinx, an issue only because so much of Apprentice’s driving force relies on the exploration of the ultimately unresolved question of Aiman’s real motivation: morbid curiosity, vengeful quest or discovery, then complete disavowal and betrayal of his and his family’s past?

As a non-campaigning film, Apprentice ironically came too close to its subject matter when, in the same week as its Cannes world premiere, and after an excruciating process of a temporary reprieve and multiple dramatic appeals, the Sarawakan migrant worker Kho Jabing was executed in Singapore for a murder he committed during a robbery gone wrong. Possibly the first-ever execution here completed after Friday dawn, the untimely murder of Kho was swiftly followed by the sentencing to death of two drug traffickers and the appeal on behalf of four others on death row. “I know you’ll make the right decision,” Aiman’s sibling Suhaila encourages him before a life-changing moment, “you always do.”

If and when their Friday mornings come, what will you be doing?

Apprentice is now showing in Singapore—at select Golden Village and FilmGarde Cineplex cinemas—and France. The film will also open in the UK, Ireland, Mexico, Turkey, Poland, Greece and Hong Kong and screen at the Jerusalem, Melbourne and New Horizons International Film Festivals. For screening details and more information, visit Apprentice's Facebook page at: http://fb.com/apprenticefilm