Apprentice – A MediaConnex Film Review
Gordian knot of the heart.
Apprentice is a Singaporean film written and directed by Boo Junfeng. The story sees the bond between a young prison warden and a senior hangman unravel, as hidden agendas and childhood trauma rise to the surface. The protagonist, Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), digs into his family’s past at the risk of getting caught by Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), the one man who may have been instrumental in Aiman’s painful life.
The film is a powerhouse of layers, woven like fibers in a rope. From the start, every scene provides at least two if not more elements of story, character and motifs layered within a single act, word or shot. It takes effort to get through most of the scenes, and it may be even exhausting for some.
Junfeng puts to good use every bit of visual estate, letting us see the slowly tightening rope between the two men. We first get a glimpse of Aiman’s crucial flaw, poignantly expressed in subdued flashes of character revelation. And when we catch sight of Rahim, it is both a powerful burst of energy, and a subtle tension echoing beneath — as taut as any rope burdened with a huge weight. By the end of the first act, you are hooked to see what happens when these two realities quietly collide.
The rope is a brilliant visual reference. Its impact is thematic, from the intertwining unhealthy relationship between them, the tightening of Aiman’s obsession, and the sister as the last redeeming anchor for him. She does everything in her power to move on, but he digs deeper into his pain. His cage is profoundly more lasting, particularly when there isn’t any hanging to release his agony.
The audience may notice that the movie occasionally slows down long enough to focus on some choice elements before moving on. The focus helps in the storytelling, but at times leaves you guessing why some moments are stretched.
The warden hopes by taking over the executioner’s post, that a new identity will give him control and purpose. But even with the perks, we find him looking out onto the world from a small window. At the final chance to walk away from it all, the warden stands poised with his hand on the lever, ready to land the final blow for the inmate, and for himself.
Why you would want to watch it:
Junfeng took several years to produce and eventually screen it at Cannes, including having to film in Australian prisons because of Singapore government backlash for bringing up the country’s use of capital punishment, which has been criticized by foreign countries. Because of that, the film benefited from support outside Singapore, such as Germany, France, Hong Kong and Qatar.
Junfeng and his crew have received awards from film festivals across the globe, including Taipei, Hawaii and Busan.
Apprentice‘s strength is not just its powerful visual cues, but the disciplined restraint of using them. Less is truly, and magnificently, more. The film is worthy of your time.