Five on Friday: Why you should watch Boo Junfeng’s prison film Apprentice

Five on Friday: Why you should watch Boo Junfeng’s prison film Apprentice

In her regular end-of the-week series, Channel NewsAsia's Genevieve Loh zooms in on why Singaporean director Boo’s second film is a must-see before it leaves cinemas.

Apprentice by Boo Junfeng

In her regular end-of the-week look at something that is getting her hot under the collar in the entertainment world,Channel NewsAsia's Genevieve Loh gives her take on why Boo Junfeng's latest movie is worth watching.

SINGAPORE: Apprentice might only be Singapore auteur Boo Junfeng’s second film, following his successful debut Sandcastle which premiered at the International Critics' Week at Cannes 2010. But that hasn’t stopped the filmmaker from making major cinematic strides with the prison drama he describes as “a labour of love”.

Globally, it’s done well. The film premiered in the progressive Un Certain Regard section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival earlier this May, where it received positive feedback from international film critics and a standing ovation. The tale about the relationship between a young correctional officer and the chief executioner of a maximum security prison then opened in cinemas across France last month, kicking off a packed international theatrical release schedule that includes Poland, Mexico, Turkey, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland and the U.K. Apprentice has also been making its festival circuit rounds, showing recently at the Sydney Film Festival and the Jerusalem Film Festival.

On the domestic front, Apprentice has managed to amass a box-office take of S$177,000 (as of Jul 21) from 10 prints since opening Jun 30. While that is an encouraging figure for a local film, especially one that is competing with the likes of Hollywood heavy hitters like Finding Dory and Ghostbusters, it is also a box-office figure that could be, frankly, so much higher.

That's because it has the artistry and ability to carry on what Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo or the recent SG50 anthology 7 Letters have already done. And that is to break new ground and herald a new era in local film-making where homegrown directors, writers and producers are fortified and unafraid to make confident films that raise the bar well above pandering to the lowest common denominator, are in possession of international legs and still emerge a critical and commercial success.

If you still haven’t made the trip to the cinema to catch this gem of a film, here are five reasons why you should:


Apprentice is a refreshing new addition to the canon of local cinema, with Boo delivering a style and genre in a cinematic vernacular previously unexplored before in Singapore film. Even though it’s set in an unnamed penitentiary (and actually filmed in a real but defunct Australian prison) audiences will still be recognize the film, on many different levels. The film is so assured in the multiple themes it presents and the cinematic identity it takes upon to explore them that it never once succumbs to the usual tropes of what makes a Singapore film.

The varied crutches of what often defines a Singapore movie – be it those generic heart-warming HDB scenes, a healthy use of Singlish, the dysfunctional multi-generational heartlanders or the easy, fail-safe laughs gleaned from typical Singaporean quirks - are strikingly absent. Yet the film keeps a stronghold on resonating with both a local and international audience by concentrating on its narrative core and scrutinizing issues such as capital punishment and our local justice system, as well as fluctuating perspectives of morality, ethics and humanity. The result? A uniquely un-Singaporean Singapore film.


According to Boo, he wrote the characters with not one specific race or ethnicity in mind. So when he held auditions, it was open to both professional and non-professional actors of all races. That has worked out artistically perfect for the film. Veteran Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su is absolutely riveting in the role of chief executioner Rahim, delivering a subtly-shaded nuanced performance that is sincere, quietly contained and perversely charismatic. His chemistry with the nascent Fir Rahman (a Singaporean newcomer in his first ever movie as the titular Apprentice) is palpably raw, coaxed out by their director Boo, and given just the right space to breathe. Veteran theatre, television and film Singapore actress Mastura Ahmad and theatre actor Crispian Chan round off the film’s bracing honest performances, underscoring how the utter normality of Boo’s characters contrast with the subject matter in the most unsettling way.


You’d be hard-pressed to find a local film that is so willing to confront the controversial and fraught subject of the way crime and punishment is handled with this much finesse. Is the death penalty ever justifiable as a societal response to heinous crimes? What are the effects of capital punishment on those who impose it, those who witness it and those with families who indirectly bear the consequences of it? How can it be imposed fairly? This unsentimental and thought-provoking film offers different viewpoints without resorting to preaching, with Boo’s uncompromising approach refusing to judge any of its characters, be it the damned or condemned.


Want to know why it received a standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere? Why this movie captured the imagination of the critics and the public at Cannes with film trade magazines like Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Screen Daily giving positive feedback and describing it as “thematically complex”, “earnest”, “ambitious” and “consistently compelling viewing” in reviews? It took Boo 5 years to make this film, from talking to real-life retired executioners to seeking co-production support from Germany, France, Hong Kong and Qatar, and it shows. Between the evocative art direction and haunting soundscape, the amount of thought, patience and craftsmanship that went into making Apprentice leaps off the screen.


It’s undeniably a contrast to the deluge of superhero flicks, blockbuster sequels and C-grade rom-coms currently flooding our cinema screens, and a refreshing alternative. If you hanker after something a little more enriching and with a strong Asian feel, this move will deliver!

Source: CNA