There has been no shortage of first-rate films examining the death penalty in recent decades, from Errol Morris' groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line to Tim Robbins' powerful Dead Man Walking. Overtly or not, these films mostly build arguments against capital punishment, which can limit their reach because the films typically wind up preaching to the converted.
With his absorbing prison drama Apprentice, Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng hopes to add new perspectives to the debate. In interviews, the 33-year-old Junfeng has stated his unequivocal opposition to the death penalty. (Singapore's laws dictated mandatory death sentences for those convicted of drug trafficking as well as murder. The practice continues today with a few circumstance-specific exceptions.) For his film, the writer-director identified two groups of people whose voices have not been a part of the discussion: the families of those executed — who often are consumed by their own guilt and shame — and those charged with carrying out the executions.
Apprentice represents both groups in a single protagonist. Aiman (Firdaus Rahman) is a 28-year-old prison officer newly transferred to the maximum-security facility where his father was executed decades before. Meanwhile, Aima's older sister Suhaila has taken up with an Australian expatriate who may provide a way for her to leave Singapore and put her family troubles far behind, much to Aima's disapproval. Suhaila is similarly unhappy about Aiman's budding friendship with Rahim (celebrated Singaporean actor Wan Hanafi Su), the prison's chief executioner and the man directly responsible for their father's death — especially when Aiman gets the chance to become Rahim's apprentice.
These circumstances provide a rich setting where Junfeng can explore the moral and social ramifications of state-sponsored killings in a relatively impartial way. Apprentice is primarily a character study fueled by the strong performances of its cast, but it becomes a low-key thriller as mysteries associated with Aiman's situation begin to take shape. Why has he infiltrated the site of his father's killing? And why does he risk exposure of his family history, which would prevent him from working in that section of the prison — and make concealing it a chargeable offense? Aiman's story becomes a journey of self-discovery as circumstances he creates force him to confront personal demons.
An advocate for allowing film projects to evolve in organic and unhurried ways, Junfeng spent four years researching and writing Apprentice, much of that time meeting both former executioners and the families of those executed. Like 2010's Sandcastle, Junfeng's little-seen first feature, Apprentice illuminates middle-class life in today's Singapore with an unsparing, unsentimental eye and a special emphasis on how one generation's experiences shape the lives of the next.
Some may object to Apprentice's intentionally ambiguous ending, as the director resists the urge to provide easy answers to complex questions. But Aiman's conflicted views are meant to reflect those of the public at large. His shot at self-knowledge necessarily begins with thoughtfulness and empathy for others, qualities also found in Junfeng's affecting film.