Appraising “The Apprentice”

An excerpt from Dan Koh’s insightful review of The Apprentice, a ground-breaking new film by Boo Junfeng about capital punishment in Singapore. You can read the full review at The On-line Citizen.



Photo: Joseph Nair

For a country that hangs criminals regularly and very recently—over 400 since 1991—and boasted possibly the world’s highest execution rate per capita in the late 1990s, it is puzzling that the corpus of Singapore literature on capital punishment remains slim, recent and suppressed. In 2005, the play Human Lefts was censored of all references to the death penalty a day after Nguyen Tuong Van’s execution, followed by author Alan Shadrake’s prison sentencing for contempt of court due to his variable Once A Jolly Hangman (2010). Only the plays Good People (2007) and Senang (2014), which deal tangentially with the death penalty, Alfian Sa’at’s harrowing short story “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Hanging” (2010), Seelan Palay and Shikin Ali’s mixed-media exhibition CAPITAL (2011) and more lately the play reading of Judgement Day (2015) have escaped unscathed, if little-experienced by the wider public. This enforcedly unreflective state of affairs, a by-product of our helpless acceptance of capital punishment as a non-issue, when Singapore is one of the last 36 nations to actively retain it, has even allowed the National Gallery Singapore to entice visitors in its similarly unquestioned promotional video, titled ‘What Will You See?’, with: “Criminals were once sentenced to hang here / Iconic masterpieces now hang on the walls instead”.

Quietly blowing open this dispiriting collection of works is Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice. Its long-awaited release comes at an unprecedentedly productive time for the Singapore prison film, what with fellow Cannes Film Festival debutant A Yellow Bird by K. Rajagopal, Ivan Ho’s upcoming comedy Take 2 and Tan Shijie’s haunting segment in Distance. Could SG50 [Editor: Singapore’s celebrations of its 50th year of political independence] have sparked off an inadvertent examination of the state-sponsored and largely mandatory retribution that supposedly props up our success and security? Boo’s sophomore film successfully transcends the potential pitfalls of its divisive subject by penetrating into the very soul of crime and punishment in order to meditate upon our everyday culpability. Despite what The Straits Times may suggest, Apprentice does not in the least put “a human face on the abstract idea of capital punishment”, but reveals its inhumane, barbaric nature and the untold sufferings that visit even its abettors.


Apprentice SG still #3 (Meg White)

Photo: Meg White

The multi-country co-production traces the fraught, voyeur-to-partaker journey of its titular character, 28-year-old correctional officer Aiman (Geng Rebut Cabinet‘s Firdaus Rahman), as he is transferred to the maximum-security, fictional-but-all-too-real Larangan Prison. Laden with a personal and unresolved link to the death penalty, Aiman forms a budding and all-consuming mentorship with magnetic chief executioner Rahim (the masterful Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su in his first movie and overseas role) that threatens the relationship with his Australia-bound sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), his last family connection, in addition to his precarious self-identity….

While some critics felt Apprentice lacked a unifying meaning or clear-cut stand in regard to its controversial subject, the ‘should-capital-punishment-be-abolished-or-not’ debate to me is circumvented as soon as we are confronted with an execution. Following an in-depth and strangely fascinating tutorial and initiation into the technicalities behind a “10 upon 10” hanging—the ideal thickness and type of rope, along which vertebrate to place the noose’s knot, the correct formula of rope length to body weight—Boo places us front and centre of a hanging and its aftermath that are all the more shocking, unflinching and climatic in their lack of forewarning and cut-away. The scene, about three-quarters in, is hopefully the closest I’ll get to George Orwell’s infamous epiphany in “A Hanging” (1931): “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” The prisoner here, Randy Tan (Crispian Chan), buckles and hyperventilates during his painfully long approach to the gallows, and in the autopsy afterwards, I was struck by his graceful, pianist fingers sticking out of the evidence sheet, like the “childish feet, tilted, dangling”, of the “dwarfish boy-man” after execution in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965). To me, Apprentice only gains in complexity in its humanistic surpassing of direct questions of capital punishment’s morality and efficacy. As Boo shared at the Singapore gala premiere, “My only hope with this film is to raise the right and important questions… If I had a message, I would just say it”….


Apprentice SG still #1 (Meg White)

Photo: Meg White

Read the full review at The On-line CitizenApprentice is now showing in Singapore—at select Golden Village and FilmGarde Cineplex cinemas—and France. The film will also open in the UK, Ireland, Mexico, Turkey, Poland, Greece and Hong Kong and screen at the Jerusalem, Melbourne and New Horizons International Film Festivals. For screening details and more information, visit Apprentice’s Facebook page at:











Photo: Loo Zihan

Dan Koh is an independent writer and editor based in Jurong. A Singapore Creative Writing Residency 2013 writer-in-residence, Dan writes about Singapore’s heritage and culture. The author of Gila Bola!: Surviving Singapore Soccer (2012), Dan has published essays in Time Out Singapore, BiblioAsia, Infopedia, NYLON Singapore, The Online Citizen and more. As an editor, Dan edited and co-edited over 15 books for Epigram Books, including Let the People Have Him  (2014), Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2015 second runner-up, and the New York Times-bestselling The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015).

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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