Apprentice (2016) – The Pensive Gaze of the Hangmen

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Apprentice, Movie Poster, Junfeng Boo

It’s been nearly fifty years since the maverick Japanese film-maker Nagisa Oshima made Death by Hanging (1968), a subversive statement against death penalty. A year before Oshima’s film, Richard Brooks’ True Crime masterpiece In Cold Blood (1967) was released – based on Truman Capote’s incendiary non-fiction book. In Cold Blood took us through the distressing details of a crime and its punishment. Oshima’s movie, however, was a part hysterical black comedy and part contemplative feature posing profound questions about nature of capital punishment in a prejudiced, class-ridden society. Over the years, there has been handful of films which intricately examined the brutality of state-sanctioned death. Yet, most of those films shaped its narrative from the convicts’ perspective. Singapore film-maker Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice (2016), surprisingly, unfurls its narrative from an alienated prison correctional officer’s perspective, who unbelievably trains to be the hangman (Luis Berlanga’s 1963 classic The Executioner unfolds from the viewpoint of man training to be executioner, although it made its point against death penalty by taking highly satirical approach). Apprentice is a pensive feature, stripped off all the heightened drama, and subtly explores the personal toll it takes on the people who are destined to eventually pull the lever.

Boo Junfeng in an interview states that ‘For me prison is not just a physical space. It’s a psychological space as well.’ The statement perfectly reflects in the way the director turns prison atmospherics into an important character. The harsh criminal justice system and extensive use of capital punishment in Singapore were mostly derived from the time the island nation was part of British Colony. So director Jufeng says he wanted the prisons to be dark, old, and dirty to reflect the colonial inheritance of the laws. Since, he didn’t get permission to shoot in Singapore prisons and even if he got the green-light, the country’s prisons were too sterile to suit his purpose. In order to fulfill his vision, the director raised funds and went to Australia to shoot in two abandoned prison facilities. The corridors and cells of the prison are devoid of any bright light. The dim source of light settling on the prison officers exhibits their disillusioned existence. In the film’s prologue, the camera moves through the labyrinthine, gloomy corridors before finding 28 year old Aiman (Firdaus Rahman) waiting to conduct his execution job.

Wan Hanafi Su marvelously plays experienced hangman Rahim -- an isolated man who takes some pride in inflicting 'humane' death on the condemned
The narrative flashes a little backward to the day Aiman joins the maximum security prison (transferred from Commonwealth). He says his intention is to teach the convicts new trades for rehabilitation. Aiman believes in rehabilitation since he was once controlled by gangs and drug habits. Unlike his colleagues, Aiman thinks that he can relate with prisoners. If not for the rehabilitation, he would have found himself on the other side. Aiman lives with his older sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), who loves an Australian. They have grown up with their grandparents. Aiman and Suhaila’s life, however, was marked by their father’s notorious identity and his obscure past. The sister has decided to marry the Australian and move away, but Aiman doesn’t have a shoulder to rest his head on. For some odd reasons, Aiman was drawn to Wing E, to which he doesn’t have the clearance to enter. In Wing E, prison’s chief executioner Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su) impeccably does his job. A chance meeting brings Aiman closer to Rahim. At the same time, we learn that Aiman’s father was hanged in the same prison by Rahim (since grandparents were Aiman’s legal guardians, this vital detail was initially missed by the recruiting officers). We wonder if Aiman’s belief in rehabilitation is just a pretense; and whether he has taken the job to fulfill twisted sense of revenge. But ‘Apprentice’ is actually lot more complex than being a simple bloody revenge drama. It’s a stark visual poetry of disenchanted individuals’ emotional experience.

One of the recurring visual motifs in Apprentice is the shot of Aiman seen through barred windows, suggesting the imprisonment of his self (or emotional incarceration). Dialogues are only used in short bursts, which never brings out the whole details of his past. The restrained manner of speaking very much aligns with his self-imprisonment state. While director Boo Junfeng humanizes the executioners, preserving their emotional complexity, he also boasts a surgical eye to observe the proceedings. Governments try to erase the labor, time, psychological toll, and other details behind the implementation of capital punishment. Boo diffuses upon us the full knowledge required to conduct ‘successful’ hanging. The scales that weigh the condemned, the glimpse of trap door, the purchase of hanging ropes, choosing the perfect diet, and then the distressing final walk – the minute details that need to be accomplished to hang a convict keeps us on the edge. Moreover, Boo’s pacing and shot placement in the ‘hanging’ scenes are astounding. Chief executioner Rahim witnesses every formal detail from a detached perspective. But for Aiman (viewers’ surrogate), the details are both appalling and absorbing. At one point, Rahim after explaining how to decide on rope length and how to tie rope’s knot, says to Aiman, “The perfect job is when we fracture between the second and third vertebrae. This spot here. Can you feel it? When he drops, you will hear a 'crack!' And that's it…...The score for that? 10/10.” The confused reaction on Aiman’s face mirrors our own emotional state, where the instant ‘humane’ death is considered as the triumph of this profession.

Aiman guides the condemned during his final walk. The atmosphere is cloaked in doom as they make their way through echoing corridors
Apprentice pursues after couple of themes: how the death penalty plagues the living (the executioner as well as condemned’s relatives); and how sins of father punishes the subsequent generations. Director Boo Junfeng definitely explores these dark themes using un-showy terms. The interesting interplay between Aiman and hangman Rahim was never sapped for sentimentality. For the most part, the narrative observes human frailty found on the both sides – executioner & executed. Despite the director’s stance against capital punishment, there’s no contrived drama to weave loud messages. Up until the last shot, Boo lingers on the human sensitivity, affected by dehumanizing marches to death. The two central performances from Rahman and Wan are nothing short of heartbreaking. Rahman’s ghoulish eyes speak volumes about the despair of the damned. Special mention must go to the impeccable sound design and unobtrusive score which preserves the brooding atmospherics.    

Singaporean drama Apprentice (96 minutes) examines the controversial social issue of death penalty from the rarely seen perspective of the executioner. Director Boo Jungeng’s flawless formal presentation provides a unique look at the striking personal and societal impacts of death penalty. 

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Apprentice - Official Trailer (YouTube)

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