At first glance, Boo Junfeng’s latest film Apprentice looks like an attempt to take the delicate subject of capital punishment by the neck in being one of the few (perhaps the only) films to explore this topic in Singapore. However, any expectation of a direct engagement is thwarted as we are presented instead with a film where clear moral stands and boundaries dissipate within the dark execution chambers.
This film takes on the perspective of young police officer Aiman who has just transferred to a prison dealing with death row prisoners. Externally, the physical boundaries are clear: prison walls confine the inmates, and fences appear frequently to visually reinforce the clearly delineated spaces. However, such is the extent of the delineation as all other boundaries quickly dissolve as the film progresses.
Aiman is interviewed by his superior before he starts his new posting as if he is a prisoner himself. His uneasy demeanour make us wonder if something lies beneath that facade. Throughout the film, he sneaks around the prison premises, almost like a criminal himself. We find out later that he has a troubled past – he was involved in gangs, drugs and had a hot temper. Yet ironically, he is now a prison officer and before this an army regular, both of which are uniformed careers that enforce state laws or punish transgressors of those laws. The chief executioner Rahim is no better. When he is with his colleagues, he makes fun of the prisoners, saying they need to be fed well so that they will hang well from the noose. On the roads, he is an impatient, short-tempered and dangerous driver.
If the officers are cast in an ambiguous light, so are the prisoners, who are shown without any aggression or malice. Far from being unrepentant or rebellious, they are cooperative and mostly wear a front of quiet acceptance of what is coming. They only falter when walking down the corridor to the execution chamber, gripped by the reality that death is just minutes away. Interestingly, the prisoners seem to have tighter bonds with their families. Randy longs for his wife’s visit and when Aiman visits his family, it seems she had been prevented by the family from making any contact with him. We are also told that the twin sons of Hock have been visiting him everyday. In contrast, Aiman’s relationship with his sister Suhaila is strained and even though there is some semblance of reconciliation at the end, she decides to leave for Australia. Rahim was married but his wife left him when she found out about the true nature of his job.
As such, there is no room in this film for stereotypical views of what an officer or a prisoner should be. Everything melts into a liminal space in which all characters share the common goal of seeking redemption. Aiman wants to shake off the shadow cast by a murderer-father whom he never knew, Rahim lies to make the prisoners feel better and makes peace with himself by believing that the prisoners do not feel any pain (something which nobody can verify apart from the prisoners themselves), Suhaila looks forward to a future away from her current family situation, and the prisoners seek solace in religion or their families.
Yet redemption does not come easy. The longing to correct things and to have a second chance undergirds the entire film but answers are neither forthcoming nor straightforward. Throughout the film, Aiman is the handyman who fixes everything and makes them right. Yet, he is unable to fix the door of a cupboard which holds fond memories of his childhood (incidentally, the malfunctioning of a door, which is supposed to maintain and close off physical space, can also be read as a breakdown of boundaries in the film). In the end, Aiman loses patience and destroys the whole cupboard with his own hands.
Also consider Randy, whose execution is the only one we witness in the entire film. Prior to the execution, the scene is dark and the music is intense. The foreboding sense of doom is palpable as he prepares for death. Rahim tells Randy that he is sending him to a better place and pulls the lever immediately. However, when Randy’s body is retrieved, the room is bathed in bright light and Randy’s last expression is not one of fear or shock. Perhaps redemption has been found through death itself. What about Aiman, who narrowly escapes being charged and instead becomes the chief executioner himself? Is this redemption for him and would his secret be discovered?
There are no quick and easy answers as the film ends. While the ending could be read in many ways, one possibility is that this is an allusion to the final dissolution of the boundary between film and audience, executioner and prisoner. Throughout the movie, we occupy the space outside of the filmic world and take on the perspective of the executioner, but in the final moments, we have become the prisoner instead, experiencing that same quick, abrupt and supposedly painless darkness which comes with death.
This film is an intriguing exploration of human psyche in the face of death, far beyond making moral statements for or against capital punishment. Indeed, the film does not seem interested in unearthing the wider social and humanistic discussions around this controversial topic, choosing instead to touch briefly on it (for example, when Aiman and Rahim get into an argument about who decides if someone deserves to die), and then moving quickly to interpersonal issues and family problems instead.
It is a pity that the film is too short and thus the development of the plot and characters, while commendable, is slightly stunted. Death is the great equaliser and also a morbidly fascinating subject to explore, especially when it comes in the form of capital punishment. In weaving the complexities of the characters’ backgrounds and personalities into the strands of the film, Boo has created a thought-provoking exploration of the death sentence, pulling it it out from its shroud of darkness. For the person who usually does not give second thought when hearing about the death sentence, this film would be a good reminder that capital punishment remains a highly contentious issue not only at the political or social level, but also at the interpersonal, human level.
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[This post was first written for and published at the Plural Art Blog.]