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OzAsia film review: Apprentice

Festivals

Singapore’s system of capital punishment is contentious, even within a nation where it seems to have majority support, and this OzAsia Festival film confronts the issue in a sobering way.

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The second feature film by Singaporean director Boo Junfeng, Apprentice was chosen for screening in the Official Selection at Cannes.

It follows the activities of the chain-smoking Chief Rahim, a prison hangman, and his protégé, Aiman, the “apprentice” of the title. Rahim is an old hand, so his matter-of-fact descriptions of what happens to a person’s neck during a hanging are all the more frightening for their clinical tone.

“The trick is…” explains the hangman, as if he’s instructing how to put the filter back in your dishwasher.

Aiman is a solitary, troubled figure. Dedicated to his service, and efficient at his work, he is keen to make amends for a misspent youth. His elder sister plans to move to Australia and wants Aiman to join her, but he feels he has unfinished business in Singapore.

Junfeng teases us with information. A glimpse of the first victim is all we see, as the hangman checks that the inmate’s diet doesn’t change between now and his day of reckoning, lest it upset their weight calculations. Despite any protests of innocence, or last-minute attempts at repentance, the hangman just does his job.

Aiman quietly peppers the master with questions, gently probing toward a deeper understanding of the ethics and humanity of their role.

The chilling silence of the prison is broken only by the sounds of clanging doors, droning overhead fans and distant thunderstorms. The drab prison walls and uniforms take on a sickening hue against the natural greens of Singapore’s abundant tropical lushness.

The subject matter makes this an intensely engaging film. Aiman’s struggle between compassion and duty seem to be at odds with his master, who comforts himself with the thought that at least he kills his charges quickly; there is no lingering death. But flashes of anger hint at something deeper.

Aiman is searching for answers, and finds it challenging to remain detached from the emotional impact that his work brings. It is a sombre and joyless task.

Apprentice gently prods and probes at a vexing issue in our immediate region, raising more questions than it answers. A deeply thoughtful and moving film.

Apprentice will screen at the Mercury Cinema on September 22 and 27 as part of the OzAsia Festival film program.

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