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Learning the ropes from an Angel of Death
APPRENTICE is neither an adequate nor appropriate description for an executioner-in-training, but Boo Junfeng's new film makes a serious attempt at getting inside the head of a character who just might be a prison's new hangman.
It doesn't quite succeed but in the process of examining the death penalty from a hangman's perspective, the movie raises important questions about our own humanity while opening a window to a different, morbidly fascinating world.
Boo, whose debut feature Sandcastle (2010) explored themes of family and identity, is unafraid of tackling sensitive subject matters head-on - at plucking the forbidden fruit that commercially-driven local filmmakers such as Jack Neo won't even touch with a barge pole.
Boo spent several years doing research before bringing his arthouse-ready vision to the big screen. There are a few moments of gallows humour - provided by a silver-maned Angel of Death - but Apprentice is in no danger of being mistaken for a Lunar New Year release.
The storyline hinges on the relationship between a pragmatic veteran of the prison system and his new charge - a young prison officer who has a secret and holds more than mere professional interest in working with his mentor.
Shot in a visually evocative, deliberately austere style, there is a stage-play-like quality to the film - and too many scenes incorporating people walking down dark corridors, and of cell doors opening, then clanging shut.
Aiman (Fir Rahman) is a new kid on the prison block, in a fictional facility that - of course - could pass for being in Singapore. He's an officer who is assigned to look after rehab prisoners but inevitably, he's drawn towards the restricted block holding death row prisoners, and to Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), the chief executioner who goes about his grisly work in a quietly efficient way, whether he's shopping for extra rope for his nooses or pulling the lever that sends condemned men to their deaths.
He may have a thankless task, but Rahim is meticulous in his preparations and - ironically - intent on performing his duties in a humane, compassionate manner.
He develops a rapport with the younger man and grooms him to be a potential successor, but Aiman has a troubling habit of skulking around rooms and lurking in the shadows, secretly observing his superior. What's driving him? Is it morbid curiosity or does he have some darker motive in mind?
It emerges that his own father was once a death row inmate - in one of those only-in-the-movies twists - and was executed by Rahim. Aiman also has an uneasy relationship with his older sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), perhaps because she is planning to leave the tidy apartment they share and emigrate with her Caucasian boyfriend.
Does Aiman have the temperament to become the prison's next hangman, is he driven by guilt and a desire to atone for his father's sins - or is he on some sort of personal revenge mission? Apprentice is an ambitious but incomplete attempt to put a compassionate face to men who are permitted by law to kill others, and also to the dead men walking - the condemned people on death row.
The film conveys a requisite sense of dread, delves into a person's psyche and tries to sift through a heavy load of psychological baggage. Being witness to an execution causes understandable unease, but who knows how an executioner really feels? By the end of Apprentice we still don't know, but at least we'll have thought long and hard about it.