Nathaniel R reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival
Fine movies nearly always have a specific point of view, whether that's through a polished screenplay, unusually commanding performance, or auteurial voice. In the case of Apprentice, a new drama set almost entirely in a maximum security prison, that POV is subjective, even literal on occasion. We're experiencing the story through the eyes and feelings, however repressed, of a young Malay corrections officer named Aiman (Fir Rahman). Aiman has started a new position in the rehab unit of the prison before drifting, from what seems like instinctual curiousity, towards the jail's hangman Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), who seems from a distance callous about his job, deploying gallows humor at lunch. Rahim takes a liking to the young oddly serious man and soon he's teaching him the literal ropes -- hanging being the method of execution in Singapore. Naturally it's more complicated that that as the hangman requests a transfer for the young man to become his apprentice and as we get closer to Aiman, we're forced to rethink our first impressions of him.
His interest in the executioner is less a curiousity than an inexorable pull from his own painful past...
Apprentice takes a bit of a heavyhanded interest in all of its parts. Aiman's tense relationship with his sister is moving but predictable and sometimes distracting and though initially compelling the minutiae of the mechanics and sounds of prison life approach overkill. Still, its central drama is a beauty. That slow-paced inexorable pull toward each new Dead Man Walking is entirely gripping.
The 32 year old writer/director Boo Junfeng is a rising talent in Southeast Asian cinema and its immediately evident why. Apprentice is only his second full length feature (the first was Sand Castles) but he has a near-sensory grasp on storytelling, especially in tight tactile closeups and POV shots. It's hard to shake a shot from inside the hood that's meant to blind the dead men to their fear. What's more the shot isn't a cheap gimmick but a fully earned important key to understanding Aiman. To the movie's great credit the POV feels as slippery as Aiman's feelings about what he's doing and why. Two perfectly placed scenes between Aiman and Rahim, one all smothered unspoken fury, the other a head to head verbal showdown, are explosively well-acted. If Aiman and Rahim are both torn in their own disparate ways about the executioner's job and the bizarre contradictions of compassionate inhumanity ('kill them but make it painless!'), why shouldn't we be?
Oscar Chances: Singapore has not yet announced their submission but last year's entry 7 Letters was an omnibus film and Boo Junfeng was among its 7 directors.
Distribution: Yes. The Apprentice will be released by Film Movement in early 2017.