Launching at Cannes in 2009, Jacques Audiard’s delirious incarceration fantasy “A Prophet” virtually rewrote the rules for the prison movie, which makes the festival a fitting platform for a film that is “A Prophet’s” opposite in nearly every way. Privileging psychic scars over physical violence, and battling aggression with introspection, Singaporean director Boo Junfeng’s “Apprentice” shifts its attention from the prisoners to the staff, concentrating on a soft-spoken corrections officer who finds himself on the fast track to become chief executioner on the Malay equivalent of Death Row.
Though he offers a platitude about “wanting to help people” during the job interview, Aiman (Fir Rahman) has his own personal reasons for wanting to work in the Larangan Prison, though his motives emerge only gradually over the course of the film. What the young man doesn’t realize when he lands his new gig is how swiftly he will be brought under the wing of the prison’s chief executioner, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), who takes no pleasure in his grisly profession, but accepts the heavy responsibility nonetheless. Nor does Aiman anticipate the obligatory background check they will run on him — and how it will inevitably look when they learn his father was hanged in that very same prison.
Responding to Singapore’s unusually harsh death-penalty laws, Boo’s earnest yet only intermittently engaging sophomore feature (following his well-received 2010 Critics’ Week debut, “Sandcastle”) serves as an indictment of capital punishment, but as could also be said of its secret-keeping protagonist, its relation to the subject is more complicated than that: Like the kid who discovers a Nazi war criminal in Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil,” Aiman can’t resist his fascination with the macabre, in this case stealthily creeping around behind Rahim in order to examine the prison’s gallows — a room whose very blandness makes it all the more haunting.
Lurking above, Aiman peers down through the open trapdoor as Rahim prepares for the next execution, and when confronted in the hallway, the trespassing junior officer swiftly changes the subject, suggesting a fishing supply vendor where the chief executioner — who literally doesn’t have enough rope to hang himself with — can restock. Driving out to warehouse together, Aiman and Rahim begin to bond, as the old man tentatively feels out the newcomer. Prior to Aiman’s arrival, no one in the prison was willing to pull the lever, apart from Rahim, of course, and it’s with a strange sense of paternal pride (something we suspect Aiman may have previously been denied) that he accepts the young man as his potential successor.
This couldn’t be further from what Aiman had intended, and every time he goes home to the apartment he shares with his Australia-bound big sister (Matsura Ahmad), it becomes just a little bit harder to reconcile the discrepancy between his agenda (which could be either revenge or penance for his father’s criminal past, and its consequences) and the mounting allure of trying to bring maximum sensitivity to such a depressing job. For an innocent man, Aiman harbors an incredible amount of guilt, though the actor only lets us into a fraction of his inner turmoil.
Shooting digitally on an Arri Alexa, Benoit Soler (a British-trained d.p. who also lensed recent Singaporean masterpiece “Ilo Ilo”) evokes the contrast-rich look of ’70s film stocks, where details — and our imaginations — tend to get lost in the deep, inky black shadows. Whether at work or at home, Aiman inhabits a minimalist world, uncluttered by extraneous artwork, subplots or furniture (save for a dresser in which he once hid as a child), forcing our attention from the stripped-down visuals to the relatively cluttered interior space of Aiman and Rahim’s heads. It’s too bad “Apprentice” doesn’t have anything as trippy-halucinatory as “A Prophet’s” running-deer dream sequence, as the movie feels a little too sparse and literal in places, though it shares the sense that whatever power and momentum its protagonist’s life has taken is effectively being decided for him.
There’s a certain undeniable perversity to being offered such intimate access to Death Row, and both Boo and Aiman show enormous compassion for the prisoners who find themselves there. The screenplay actually goes out of its way to humanize the condemned by presenting the reactions of the family members they leave behind (whether the twin sons of a drug smuggler, who visit daily and hold a candlelight vigil on the eve of his execution, or the wife of another who has done her best to erase his memory). Of course, Aiman falls into this category as well, and though we never form a sufficient impression of who his father was or what he did, the message is clear that Aiman has born the brunt of his cruel and unusual fate.