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Director Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice is set in the fictitious Larangan prison. We approach it with trepidation — navigating long, dark corridors and harshly lit cells — while following Malay prison officer Aiman, and through him inch closer to the noose. Junfeng treats this prison space as physical and psychological, where Aiman develops a bond with Rahim — the chief executioner — and is immediately promoted as his assistant. But Aiman is cautious about his past, worried that someone will piece together the paperwork and reveal that he is the son of a murderer hung by Rahim. “I spoke with former executioners, friends who are human rights lawyers, people who defend death row prisoners and have seen people they know sent to their death. This experience and reality is so much greater than my own,” says 32-year-old Junfeng about Apprentice, which was recently screened at Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) and Mumbai International Film Festival. The film has travelled to Cannes and is also Singapore’s official entry to the Oscars.
The powerful feature airs out the conversation about capital punishment — the moral dilemma of a death sentence. For Junfeng, born and raised in the island city-state, the film is a means to make a statement. But he adds that he’s not a rebel. “The body that funds the arts in Singapore is also the censorship body. So before we went to them we made sure we had support from interested parties in France and Germany, so I could say to them that I was going to make it with or without their help. In Singapore. They like to say that they no longer censor films, which is not really true. They just prefer to classify them,” says Junfeng, whose first film titled Sandcastle (2010) was rated R21, a punishing rating under which a filmmaker cannot distribute on video and can only show in specific theatres with R21 licenses. “Apprentice was rated M18 which is the second highest rating, but at least nothing was cut,” says Junfeng.
In the film, Aiman embodies both sides of a dilemma that runs deep — the side that believes in compassion and second chances versus one that stoically metes out justice, a cog in the machinery of a smooth system. “I choose to believe that there is some commonality among all of us and through stories we’re able to inspire empathy and meaningful conversation. It’s important to look at the spaces in between,” he says. Apprentice exists in this space where the two extremes are able to see eye to eye, and urges you to sympathise with the hangman, and know that he, too, is only human .
Actor Firdaus Rahman who plays Aiman and Wan Hanafi Su who plays Rahim are from Malaysia, which encouraged Junfeng to complete Apprentice in Malay, a language he does not speak. “There is a feeling to the scenes, a feeling that transcends language. But, yes, for the authenticity, I needed to be able to grasp some of the intonations and cultural nuances. I managed because I am surrounded by people who speak the language,” he says.
Junfeng’s quiet is deeper than his demeanour; and while in conversation, he spends his words carefully, thinking about what he means and measuring them out precisely for what he intends. Perhaps also the reason why he was enthralled by the idea of “make-believe” and started young. At 16, he went to film school, shortly after which he released his first short, A Family Portrait, in 2004. His two-year conscription, which the soft-spoken director spent in the army, was a challenge and an experience that taught him a lot. “There were challenges, but I met people I wouldn’t meet in my own social bubble. It taught me about taking myself out of my comfort zone, which is very critical for a filmmaker,” says Junfeng.