Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Apprentice' Offers a Nuanced Perspective on Capital Punishment

Singaporean director Boo Junfeng provides no easy answers in this chronicle of a correctional officer with questionable motives who studies to become an executioner.

Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng's second feature, Apprentice, approaches the issue of capital punishment from a refreshingly unusual perspective: from the side of the hangman rather than the inmate.

"I wanted to look at the issue from a point of view that I felt wasn’t addressed very much before," says the 32-year-old filmmaker, who made his feature film debut in Cannes in 2010 with Critics’ Week contender Sandcastle.

Apprentice, which premiered May 16 in Un Certain Regard, follows the story of Aiman (Fir Rahman), a young Malay correctional officer who tells his superiors at Singapore’s highest-security prison that he has entered the profession because he "wants to help" those who have done wrong but want to change. Within the prison, Aiman comes under the tutelage of Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), the facility’s domineering but dignified chief executioner.

When the reason for Aiman’s fascination with Rahim is revealed, the film's complex ethical considerations are given immediate dramatic voltage — Aiman’s own father was sentenced to Singapore’s death row and executed at the hands of Rahim years before the film begins.

Boo says Aiman’s passage through the film in some ways mirrors his own journey of developing it. "I came into the project with a point of view that was against the death penalty and almost with a caricature in mind of what a hangman would be like — until I met one of them for the first time."

While writing the story, Boo was introduced to two retired Singaporean state executioners. Neither of them conformed to his expectations, which resulted in the story taking him much longer to write. "The first person was very likable, like a grandfather character, very jocular, very charismatic," he says. The second executioner was similarly relatable, he says, but the two "had rather differing points of view on the vocation, which comes from how they bring themselves to do it — the practicality behind it, or even the compassion."

Boo also interviewed former religious councilors who had worked with death row inmates, as well as the families of executed convicts. He began the film in 2011, expecting to write and produce it fairly quickly, but the project ended up taking him five years.

Boo stresses that Apprentice is not a film that was made to provide answers. "If anything," he says, "it’s a film that will seek questions, so that people on both sides of the fence are able to talk about it."