Deservingly so, this film was screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and is Singapore's entry for the upcoming 89th Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film. Directed and written by Boo Jun Feng (7 Letters, Sandcastle), Apprentice is a prison drama that stars Firdaus Rahman (Ramadan Jangan Pergi) as Aiman Yusof, an idealistic prison officer with a dark past who's transferred to Larangan Prison, a maximum security prison. He meets Rahim, the prison's Chief Executioner, portrayed by Wan Hanafi Su (Lelaki Harapan Dunia), who is revealed to be the man who executed Aiman's father many years ago.
The film is a highly compelling, emotional and intense drama of character complexities, moral dilemmas, compassion and family issues with suspenseful narratives, thriller-like scenes and a gripping sense that something or someone's going to explode at any time. Admirably courageous and necessary, it explores Singapore's unpopular capital punishment whereby even convicted drug traffickers are sentenced to death by hanging. Instead of going for the obvious approach of gaining sympathy by focusing on a death-row prisoner, the perspectives on the subject are from a prison officer who sincerely wishes to help convicts that want to change, and a hangman who has been doing his job for 30 years — engagingly performed by Firdaus and Wan Hanafi respectively.
The film actually does depict the process of executions and a man getting hung to death. It's disturbing and uncomfortable to watch as it should be. Great work by cinematographer Benoit Soler. When the camera view shows the inside of the blindfold hood, it really terrified me. It's utterly horrible. Despite not really having a main prisoner character, I do feel sorry for those who do get hanged in the film and I see them as victims instead of criminals. One desperate moment, one mistake, and you are hanged without any loved one or friend present. Why in the civilised society does this punishment still exist? What justifies non-murderers such as drug traffickers to deserve such a harsh, irreversible punishment? Don't they deserve a second chance? What if they actually didn't commit the crime they were charged with? But then again, who am I to question? Needless to say, the film is effectively thought-provoking with a definite purpose.
Apart from conveying the subject matter, it's evident that Boo has poured a lot of heart into the writing. It never once felt like the story's cheap excuse to bring up the issue. There is a real drama in the film. Aiman is an intriguingly complex character who gradually changes as the story progresses with his backstory unfolded. When points are made and questions are presented, the final act gives the protagonist an interesting situation in a twist of events. Although the film ends predictably with an ambiguously open ending and no suggested resolution, it allows the audience to think and discuss about the issue in their own and the character's point of view.
Malaysian censorship: Inconsistent. Some F-bombs are cut instead of muted, some are censored at all and some dialogues are without vulgarities but subtitles have their own F-bombs. Regardless, it doesn't really affect the viewing experience or story.
Verdict: One of the best and most purposeful Singaporean films I've ever seen.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
* Due to the sensitivity and in respect of the subject, no meme was created for this review.
Country / Languages: Singapore / English, Malay
Running Time: 96 minutes
Director-writer: Boo Jun Feng
Cast: Firdaus Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su, Mastura Ahmad
Malaysia Release Date: 24 November 2016 (GSC International Screens only)
Local Distributor: GSC Movies
Production: Akanga Film Asia, Peanut Pictures, Zhao Wei Films, and more
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