The Boo Junfeng film was shown as part of BFI

After a standing ovation in Cannes at its premiere, Singaporean film Apprentice played as part of the BFI London Film Festival this year.

The 60th BFI London Film Festival showcased this year a spectacular selection of 246 feature films from 74 countries. Devout cinephiles pilgrim to various temples around London, affectionately known as cinemas, to pay respects to the Gods of Films, celebrating the craft and business of filmmaking and the plethora of stories people around the world have to tell.


bfi-lff-embankment-garden-cinema-exterior

Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team


In particular, a Singaporean film about capital punishment was screened at Picturehouse Central: Apprentice by Boo Junfeng.

The film begins with Aiman, a 28-year-old prison officer, being transferred to Singapore’s maximum security prison where he strikes up a friendship with the chief executioner Rahim, one of the world’s most prolific and indeed the very hangman of Aiman’s own father. Aiman needs to overcome his conscience and a past that haunts him to become the executioner’s apprentice.


Veteran actor Wan Hanafi Su as the hangman - Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team

Veteran actor Wan Hanafi Su as the hangman – Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team


“What does it mean to be empowered to kill? Is he merely doing a job?” –  Boo Junfeng

Capital punishment remains a controversial topic with moral and spiritual complexities. For some states, it is viewed as a hardline but legitimate form of justice and a deterrent to crime. As the director put it, amidst the debates and narratives surrounding the subject, a key character whose point of view we tend to neglect is the person tasked to pull the lever – the executioner.

Speaking to Resonate, director Boo Junfeng, said, “When I first began researching on the film, it was the bureaucratic stoicism surrounding executions that fascinated me. I wanted to believe that there was something human underneath it. We often see executions as an institutional thing, but ultimately, it is a human being who needs to pull the lever. I was interested to find out how one comes to terms with routinely performing capital punishments. Rahim’s character (the executioner) is a result of that.”

“I was interested to find out how one comes to terms with routinely performing capital punishments. Rahim’s character (the executioner) is a result of that. How is it possible to portray an executioner who is remorseless, yet still seems humane and relatable?”

Apprentice is a film that depicts the side of Singapore that is unfamiliar even to most Singaporeans, delineating the issues that most of us have put out of sight and mind.


Still from Apprentice (2016) - Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team

Family mourning the death of an inmate. Still from Apprentice (2016) – Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team


To prepare for the film Boo Junfeng interviewed former executioners, imams and priests who had helped death row inmates with their last prayers, and families impoverished by the execution of breadwinners.

“It has been a fascinating (and often tormenting) journey, trying to put myself in Aiman’s shoes.”


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The prison location featured in Apprentice (2016) – Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team


“I was looking for a historic British-colonial style facility with modern security features… We shot several of the prison scenes in New South Wales in Australia because there wasn’t a location in Singapore or Southeast Asia that was suitable. With our small budget, we had to have all hands on deck in order to get the production going in Australia. We had a great crew that was very dedicated. We did it as a team.”

“I wanted to make use of the architecture of the prison as sort of a projection of Aiman’s psychological space. The labyrinth of cell doors and layers of secured gates disorientate him. As he gets closer to the gallows, the spaces get darker and more ominous.”


Veteran Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su as Chief Executioner Rahim - Apprentice (2016) - Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team

Veteran Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su as Chief Executioner Rahim – Apprentice (2016) – Courtesy of London Film Festival Press Team


When asked what his idea of success for the film is,

“I am against capital punishment but Apprentice isn’t about that. I hope that the story stays with [the audience] and gives them a reason to think about the issues. I would like as many people as possible to watch it in the cinema.”

Although the story Apprentice tells is very Singapore-oriented, it is by no means a mere local production. To get the production fully realised it needed the remarkable collaborations amongst many organisations around the world. In the Singaporean context that is not a common affair. Here is the list of funders and support who contributed to the making of the film:

  • Rotterdam Cinemart 2012 (Netherlands)
  • Busan International Film Festival Asian Cinema Fund Script Development 2012 (South Korea)
  • Media Development Authority Development Fund 2012 (Singapore)
  • The Jerusalem International Film Lab 2013 (Israel)
  • Film- und Medienstiftung NRW 2013 (Germany)
  • CNC–Ministère des Affaires Etrangères–Institut Français–Aide aux cinémas du monde 2013 (France)
  • ZDF / Das Kleine Fernsehspiel 2014 (Germany)
  • Media Development Authority Production Grant 2014 (Singapore)
  • Doha Film Institute Post-production Fund 2015 (Qatar)
  • Région Île-de-France 2015 (France)
  • TorinoFilmLab Audience Design Fund 2016 (Italy)

As a filmmaker myself it is inspiring to see how Boo Junfeng and his producers tapped into global opportunities and support to get his story materialised.

“It was a huge collaborative effort working across different time zones and trying to meet the various submission deadlines. The producers did a great job getting the funds necessary to make the film.”

Apprentice is an unassuming yet extraordinary film that touches upon an important but often forgotten social and moral issue, and was executed with Boo’s precision and confidence as a filmmaker. With all its accolades and awards, the film has proven again that Singaporean cinema has a place on the international stage. Boo Junfeng handed out an advice at the end of the interview for budding Singaporean filmmakers.

“I try and focus on telling stories with themes that matter to me, and try and make them universal.”


Boo Junfeng

Director Boo Junfeng – Courtesy of LFF Press Team

Boo Junfeng made his feature-length directorial debut in 2010 with SANDCASTLE, which premiered at the International Critics’ Week at Cannes Film Festival. The film was subsequently invited to film festivals including Toronto, Busan, Vancouver and London amongst others, and was listed by The Wall Street Journal as one of Asia’s most notable films of 2010.

APPRENTICE premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it received a standing ovation. The film was selected as the Singaporean entry for the Oscars next year.

The BFI London Film Festival took place between 5 – 16 October 2016. Amongst the smorgasbord of official selections this year, there was but one Singaporean film – Apprentice by Boo Junfeng.

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