Apprentice (dir. Boo Junfeng, 2016) – A young officer in search of his past develops a tense relationship with the chief executioner at the state’s maximum security prison.
An emotive look into capital punishment, Apprentice is a rare outstanding achievement in Singapore’s independent cinema.
“But what if he didn’t do it?”
The courts found him guilty, the hangman says, as though he has rehearsed the words too many times in his mind. He cannot afford to think otherwise. Not at this second. So he pulls the lever, just as he always has. Down goes the prisoner through the open doors, his spine whispering a harrowing crack.
Chief executioner Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su) has been doing this for decades. He sees his successor in quiet correctional officer Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), who has taken a morbid interest in the gallows. But there is much more to ‘why’ than Aiman is letting on. His haunted past is revealed when he is asked to become the hangman’s assistant.
Apprentice deals with the complex theme of capital punishment in Singapore and does so well with minimal judgement, as director Boo Junfeng leaves the question of morality to the audience to ponder. Death row convicts are presented just as they appear to the executioner. We see their faces, hear their crimes and know their final sentences. But we will never get to understand what exactly had led them behind bars, or who they were outside of the cells.
Forced a grave look at the death penalty, we are compelled to imagine the troubling dilemma that the executioner must face. Death in his hands, though sanctioned, is still death. A life is a life, even a criminal’s. Besides, arguably rare miscarriages of justice are still undeniably real. There are dozens of prison officers, thousands of inmates, and just one hangman to shoulder this heavy responsibility.
It is instant and humane, Rahim tells Aiman at one point, as though that is solace enough. This is after all, only punishment due in the eyes of the law. But punishment for who? Over and over again, we are reminded of the forgotten grief of their families, left behind in gut-wrenching intimacy.
Death permanently takes away their hope for answers. Some leave in resignation, others in desperation, even blame. That the hangman must not be able to ignore as he ties the noose each day. But as they say, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.
The prison tale may be fictional, but honesty lies in the film’s bold confrontation of crime and retribution. Though weakened by a contrived ending, the final shot still leaves us much to think about. Well-researched, acted and shot, the powerful story of Apprentice masterfully makes a mark on both Singaporean cinema and the independent drama scene.