In Apprentice, writer-director Boo Junfeng casually reinvigorates the prison drama, boiling its elements down to their primal essence. As with many films set in correctional facilities, a hero who serves as the audience surrogate learns the austere, ritualistic code of conduct for governing a world that’s unimaginably dangerous for most people. The protagonists in these narratives are usually convicts, but the focus here is on Aiman Yusof (Fir Rhaman), a prison officer with a vocational background who’s transferred from the commonwealth to a maximum-security prison with the intention of teaching convicts new trades for rehabilitation. But Aiman is compelled by a new profession himself, as he’s drawn to the forbidden Wing E, where the prison’s chief executioner, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), plies his craft, hanging criminals in a practice that reaches back to Singapore’s roots as a British colony.
Apprentice opens on a flash-forward to Aiman as the new executioner. His idealistic pretenses of rehabilitation are cloaked in doom as the film’s camera snakes up and down the corridors of Wing E during the preparation of an execution. Boo understands that viewers are drawn to the intricacies of process, and as such he evades platitudes and lingers on the dehumanizing details of state-sanctioned executions, recognizing each formality as encouraging distance—on the part of the guards as well as the convicts—from the ramifications of death. We see the scales that weigh the convicts before they’re hung, which we later learn is quite important in terms of deciding the length of the hanging rope. We see a telling, teasing glimpse of the gallows: a terrifyingly banal trap door in what amounts to a bureaucratic warehouse. The prologue ends with Aiman in his new office, with barred windows that resonantly suggest that he’s as much a prisoner as any of his charges.
The notion of self-imprisonment pervades Apprentice. Boo gradually parcels out expository details about Aiman that are delivered in hard staccato bursts of dialogue that attest to life as lived in an intrusive security state with little patience for ambiguity or nuance. Aiman was once a juvenile delinquent who found comfort in the unforgiving atmosphere of the military. He has a sister, Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), with whom he lives in the cramped home they inherited from their parents. It’s clear that Aiman is a highly sensitive man with a chip on his shoulder that could harden said sensitivity into a propensity for violence. Seeing this possibility in Aiman, Rahim recognizes a kindred spirit and recruits the young man as his apprentice.
Much of Apprentice is composed of the bleak poetry of disillusioned faces—namely Aiman and Rahim’s, which are often partially obscured by their fetishistic chain smoking. Capital punishment is frequently approached by artists from the vantage point of those killed and their families, and even the families of the victims of the crimes being theoretically rectified. Boo shows the toil that killing takes on the killers, divorcing them from conventional society in a fashion that’s probably familiar to war veterans. The unnerving irony, and tragedy, of Apprentice is that Aiman is acquainted with this sort of alienation before his career change, perhaps through his time at the army but also through a secret connection to Rahim. Suhaila has a life, of which she wants Aiman to be a part, but he retreats, devoting himself to his hopeless job and to exercising—hardening himself. Rahim sees this pain and implicitly offers Aiman a kind of qualified requiem: Through age, Aiman’s misery can evolve into resigned and deeply profound unhappiness.
Boo’s surgical eye and ear keeps Apprentice from turning into a miserablist slog. Rahim’s knowledge of hanging is appalling but also fascinating, as he elaborates on how to tie the rope’s knot, and where to place the knot on the neck. The length of the rope can determine how the convict is precisely killed, whether their neck or spine is snapped on impact, or whether they’re slowly strangled to death. The ideal hanging decisively snaps the upper spine, yielding an instantaneous “humane” death. This is what passes for triumph in Rahim’s profession. Tying these images and descriptions together is the aural through line of hard boots marching up and down Wing E’s linoleum-floored corridors—the sounds of death in motion. Throughout, Fir and Wan’s extraordinarily subtle and heartbreaking performances keep this process tethered to a mysterious human element. Underneath Aiman and Rahim’s ghoulish pragmatism beat the hearts of the desperate and the damned.