Film Review: Apprentice

Prison guard becomes obsessed with a longtime executioner in this somber drama. Singapore's recent submission for Best Foreign-Language Film.
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A slow, measured character study, Apprentice charts a prison guard's existential crisis over his father's legacy. Written and directed by Boo Junfeng, the movie builds to a slow simmer before betraying its art-house roots.

Rookie prison guard Aiman (newcomer Fir Rahman) is questioned for his security clearance while making the rounds at Larangan Prison in Singapore. Ostensibly assigned to watch prisoners in a machine shop, Aiman is drawn to the prison's E block, where executions take place.

Volunteering to repair equipment there, Aiman forms a relationship with Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), for 30 years the prison's hangman. Gaining Rahim's trust, Aiman is soon named his assistant.

At home in the apartment he shares with his sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad), Aiman is guarded about his motives and feelings. She is planning to immigrate to Australia with her fiancé, and urges Aiman to break out of his shell.

But apart from his sterile home and long hours at the prison, Aiman doesn't seem to have a life. What drives the guard is one of the movie's few plot twists, discussed at length by the characters but too significant to reveal beforehand.

Boo and cinematographer Benoît Soler take a documentary approach to the prison scenes, showing exactly what goes into conducting a hanging, from tying knots and testing drop lengths to reassuring prisoners on their death marches.

Scenes at Aiman's home are also quiet and observational, giving the movie a remote, detached feel. The classical compositions, steady pacing and low-key performances help make Apprentice look and sound like a Sundance workshop production.

Fir has a strong screen presence, but Aiman is a difficult character, in part because he reveals so little. The veteran actor Hanafi Su is aces as the complacent executioner. Boo may be a bit too literal about Aiman's dark night of the soul, but a bigger problem with Apprentice is that it's a sketch blown up to feature length.

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