Friday, July 29, 2016

Review and my Personal Thoughts on "Apprentice" Film

To be perfectly honest, I'm not really a fan of local film productions. Occasionally, I've had my fair share of paying and watching them in the big screen myself. From the army inspired stories of "Army Daze" and "Ah Boys to Men" series to the tales of work and play in "Just Follow Law" and "Taxi Taxi". In some instances, we can relate to the problems in "Money Not Enough", "I Not Stupid" and "Singaporean Dreaming".

I believe that local productions do manage to capture a typical life of a Singaporean, the phases we all men have to go thru such as National Service, or overcoming typical Singaporean problems, to the reminiscing of nostalgia and the reminder of our history, these local films do capture the essence of Singaporean life regardless of the era and we can certainly relate to them easily.

That's the problem. These movies are based on what we have seen and experienced before.

In recent years, the quality of local productions have certainly gone down. Even Jack Neo had ran out of ideas as he had to reboot his ABTM film to Ah Boys to Frogmen. The worst local film I've ever watch, the very much hyped "1965", which tells the tale of Singapore's independence from Malaysia, had convinced me that local films had lost its cinema magic. Or so I thought....
Apprentice film poster.
From the surface, many people think that its a movie about the death penalty, in which is somewhat a critical and hot topic issue here in sunny Singapore. But after catching it in theaters, the execution scenes only occupy a fraction of the film itself. As I interpret it, its a story about humanity, relationships, tackling issues, the question of what can be seen as right and wrong and to a certain extent, its about facing the problems of everyday life itself.

Despite this, the movie as a whole does address the issue of capital punishment itself. While most films about the death penalty from the inmates point of view, Apprentice reverses the role and points it at the people who do the execution, literally putting a face and a image of the death penalty.

The huge difference that sets Apprentice apart from other mainstream movies today is that there is no big budget, no bad guys, no antagonists or even so called "good guys" that most other movies have. Most movies rely on a certain incident or a change in routine as a major plot to get the story going. While "Apprentice" tackles with a hot topic issue that has always been there since colonial times, capital punishment.

And to top it off, the ending itself, brings more questions than answers. As I've watched it three times, the audience was simply left quiet and shock when the movie ended for almost 30 seconds, before clapping by some random person in the audience beings.


Fir Rahman as "SGT Aiman"
"Apprentice" follows the story of prisons' officer, SGT Aiman, our protagonist, who has just been transferred from "Queenstown Remand Prison" (Which has been demolished since 2002) to the fictional "Larangan Maximum Security Prison". He takes charge of the prison's workshop, supervising rehabilitating inmates.

He then encounters the Chief Executioner, SCW1 Rahim. For some reason, he seeks him out and finally meets him while assisting SGT Joseph Lee to clear stores at the gallows. Aiman assists Rahim to seek out suitable ropes for the noose. A friendship develops between them. In the course of the film, the relationship intensifies further.

Back at home, Aiman informs his older sister, Suhaila of his encounter with the hangman. This displeases Suhaila, as their father was sentenced to death thirty years ago for a murder.

After an attempted but failed execution by potential replacement Joesph, Rahim informs of his intentions to take Aiman as his apprentice. Later, Suhaila informs Aiman of her engagement with Australian expat, John and later intends to leave the country with him. Amian, who didn't take a liking to him informs her of becoming the executioner's assistant in retaliation. This angered Suhaila, which strains their relationship. Meanwhile, Rahim teaches Aiman his knowledge and experiences with him.
Wan Hanafi Su as SCW1 Rahim
Aiman assists in the execution of death-row inmate, Randy. Distraught with the experience, he unsuccessfully calls Suhaila, who had presumably left for Australia. In the meantime, Rahim checks on Aiman's security clearance and found out that Aiman's father was sentenced to death. Aiman returns to an empty house, in distress. He later goes back to work, only to be confronted by Rahim, as he didn't declare that his father was executed for a capital offence. Because of this, Aiman wasn't cleared to do an executioner's job. Aiman retaliates, saying that he wasn't all like his father and wanted to change for the better. Rahim and Aiman got into an heated argument, questioning Rahim's ethics, use of compassion on the condemn and the burden Aiman carried due to his father's mistakes. Rahim then states that he had already written up Aiman's charge sheet, and disciplinary action will be taken against him the next day. Aiman then leaves. That night, through a voice message, he informs Suhaila of his potential charge and cries.

While on his way home, Rahim is involved in a road traffic accident. He is then hospitalized in the intensive care unit. Desperate for a replacement due to an upcoming execution, ASP James Tan taps Aiman as Rahim's replacement. The next morning, Suhaila informs him of her arrival in Australia. She asks if Aiman is still being charged, to which he says he may not. She then states that "he'll always make the right decision". Soon after, Aiman performs the execution while being watched by some other important people. He places his hands on the lever that activates the trap doors. The camera cuts to black, leaving the outcome of the execution to the viewer.

Putting the Malays as the Main Focus.

Most Singaporean movies try really hard to bring the four races, Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasians in a attempt to showcase the "multicultural" society. But the problem with most of these movies is that, usually the main protagonist are predominantly focused on the Chinese, with the other races making of what I call "forced cameos" in unnecessary scenes in an attempt to somewhat please and soften the emphasis of a multicultural society. Take for example, the typical Jack Neo movies, Mark Lee's "Taxi Taxi", "1965". If you've watched these movies, you see where I'm going with this.

The leads of "Apprentice" are all in Malay ethnicity. Something rarely seen in local productions.
However, "Apprentice" takes a totally different approach on casting its three main leads. There were a few Chinese secondary characters, with the exception of a Indian prisons officer in the background, there's almost little to no Indian representation in the film. Director and writer, Boo Junfeng stated that while casting the characters, race was never a factor. They chose the "colorblind" approach, wanting the characters to be portrayed as realistically as possible. In fact, casting itself took months in Singapore and Malaysia.
Director and writer Boo Junfeng and Wan Hanafi
While Boo Junfeng was interviewing former and current executioners, he found them nothing as he would imagine them to be. They are friendly, charismatic, grandfatherly jocular and open about what they did, That was when veteran Malaysian actor, Wan Hanafi Su was cast as the Chief Executioner, as he possess similar qualities as the real life executioners.

From there, Fir Rahman, a Singaporean stage actor was chosen by Wan Hanafi Su himself. Wan Hanafi believed in "spiritual connection", and could instantly connect with his co-star upon the first meeting. Fir also has expressive eyes, giving depth to his emotion and feeling.

Veteran Singaporean actress, Mastura Ahmad who played the older sister to the young prisons' officer, was cast simply because the character that portrayed "Aiman" is a Malay. Thus the reason why Malays were chosen as the leads.

I am however intrigued on how they were portrayed. The film is in both English and Malay with English subtitles. In the background, Hokkien and Mandarin can be heard. But unique to most local productions after P. Ramlee's era, Malay is spoken throughout 70% of the film. Unlike most Malaysian movies and Suria TV Shows, they spoke Malay in 'Bahasa Pasar'. To further to top it off, they combined English words in their speeches. This is typical of how Singaporean Malays are speaking today due to the influence of western pop cultures. I'm also impressed that Wan Hanafi, who is a native of Terengganu, perfectly talked in a Riau Malay accent within the film.

Not only that, I do personally feel that they reinforced the stereotype of Malays working in the civil service, as it is in their culture to work in secure jobs with less risk. In this case, the perfect portrayal of Prisons Officers being Malays.

Connection to the Singapore Prisons Service

Crest of the Singapore Prison Service
Though not mentioned by name in the film, the prisons organization is totally fictionalized. Most likely, as the film is dealing with the sensitive topic of the death penalty, its either the film's producers purposely voided any relation to the Singapore Prisons Service (SPS) or the SPS themselves declined any involvement due to the subject matter.

Regardless of the reasons, I was rather disappointed that they didn't use actual uniforms and insignia of the SPS. Instead, the fictional "Penjara Negara" (Malay for "State Prisons") takes its place. Their uniform design and rank structure is similar to the SPS. Rahim, who is addressed as "Chief" by his colleagues wears a similar rank insignia akin to the SPS's "Senior Chief Warder (1)" which is also similarly addressed by other officers in the lower rank. The film also depicts an Assistant Superintendent (ASP) and a Rehabilitation Officer (1) (RO1).
A comparison of uniforms of the film and the SPS.
Throughout the film, the organization is referred to as "Prisons Service" in similar fashion to the SPS. The outside fencing of Larangan Prison depicted in the film is shot outside Khalsa Crescent Drug Rehabilitation Centre off Admiralty Road West. Larangan Prisons is described to be the "territory's main prison", similarly to what Changi Prison Complex is to the SPS.

"Commonwealth" was referenced in the film, in which Aiman was transferred from. I personally think it's a nod to the former Queenstown Remand Prison at Jalan Penjara in Commonwealth. Though the prison has since been demolished in 2010, till today, it still left a long lasting legacy as the institution is notoriously known for its imprisonment of several high profile inmates including Michael Fay, Chee Soon Juan and TT Durai. Former inmates have reported ghost sightings and abuse by prisons officers. Could this be an underlining subliminal message of the prisons' culture in the film?

Easter Eggs

I also couldn't help it but to pick out easter eggs from the movie. In an instance, the fictional "Larangan Prisons" is a take on the Malay word meaning "Forbidden". The Singapore government has always took its stance on capital punishment despite harsh criticisms from the west, worldwide human rights organization, Amnesty International and the United Nations. The discussion on this issue is somewhat numb and "forbidden" to be in discussion. It further reinforces the fact that Larangan Prisons is a "maximum security prison", itself a heavily fortified and restricted compound. It's almost as if that the underlying meaning to the prison name itself has a certain purpose to it.
Aiman and Rahim in the film.
Both popular Malay names, the characters' names, Aiman and Rahim, also have some hidden meaning. In Arabic both, Aiman and Rahim means "Right" and "The Compassionate" in their literal translation respectively. However in Islam they have deep meanings behind them.

Here, the name behind "Aiman", means "the right direction". Meaning that positive aspects will be ensured if one makes the right decision while a the opposite incurs if one doesn't. In the film, Aiman himself is on a path of uncertainty and decision making. In the beginning, he was once got into gangs and took drugs, soon joins the army as a regular in the Guards unit. Later he resigns and joins the Prisons Service. This is in stark contrast to his earlier self, from a delinquent to a uniformed officer enforcing the law. His decisions led him to "the right path". In the final scene itself, his older sister, Suhaila, states that "He'll always make the right decision..." in which later on he performs the execution of Hock, a death row inmate.

Rahim means "The Compassionate". Muslims frequently hear this name in their prayers. Us Muslims believe that God is ever compassionate, no matter what sins we have committed. In the film, Rahim makes it a point to show compassion to the condemn. Ensuring that their death is quick and humane, no matter the crime. He personally meets them a few days before they are to be hanged, handing out their clothes, speaking to them nicely and ensuring that their last meal is catered to their needs. In numerous occasions he states to the condemn that "they're doing good" and in Randy's last moments, "I'm sending you to a better place." Though somewhat a questionable statement, it "comforts the condemn."

Thoughts on Capital Punishment

Randy's last moments.
The scene in which Randy Tan was executed send chills down my spine. This is due to the way that he was portrayed in the film; the long walk towards the gallows in a dark dimly lit corridor. And at the end of it, you see the executioner. Heck, definitely the last thing you'd wanna see is the face of the person who is about to execute you.

Close to the end of the film, Rahim and Aiman got into an heated argument. In the topic of Aiman's father, who was hanged due to a capital offence, Rahim quoted the newspapers, saying that "They say that Capital Punishment isn't enough for him." This was the reaction of the public as Aiman's father had murdered his friend and cut him to pieces to hide the body.
Comments on the ST FB page on a man convicted for road rage.
Firstly, in a country where 95% of the population still supports the death penalty, this kind of reaction from the public isn't that surprising. I have seen comments on Facebook claiming that the law is too soft and that the sentence to the guilty party "is too light". There's even immature comments from people saying "They deserve it." and "What? Only 3 months?", "Should deserve more!". Note that these are actual comments from random people in Facebook.

Many say and think that we should all be given second chances, but ask ourselves, do we give 2nd chances to drug traffickers and murderers? Especially if its their life on the line? It is questionable to think that we could just trade a life for a life, since as human beings we do tend to make mistakes. We don't know their surroundings and desperation which amounts to their choices. Do we feel and care for the families and the loved ones of the inmates on death row? Can we even consider that the person has truly regretted his mistakes, repented and made his peace with God?

But at the flipside of the coin, the innocent people killed or have suffered due to the selfishness of others. The families and the love ones having to suffer a loss of a person close to them. The fact that some of these inmates may even return to their old ways upon their release. Once again, a question that doesn't really have an politically correct answer doesn't it?

The Ending

In the final scene, when Aiman is on the lever and the camera cuts to black and not knowing how the outcome of the execution on screen. The director has left it ambiguous on how the ending should be. This is my analysis on what might happen.
Pulling of the lever.
If he doesn't pull the lever - Basically Aiman has stuck to his principles of rehabilitation, giving people a second chance. And by pulling the lever, it somewhat contradicts his beliefs and values. Also he may not be strong enough to take a man't life away. This can be seen from the repulsed reaction after Randy's execution.

If he pulls the lever - Aiman, overshadowed by his father's mistakes, is finally free to decide how his life is gonna be. Rahim states that due to his father's execution, he isn't cleared to do an executioner's job. Later on, he takes over Rahim and the performing of the execution itself is a representation that he has finally gotten out of that shadow. By pulling the lever, he frees himself from the burden and guilt, thus freeing himself from his past. Also, since he took the opportunity from ASP James Tan to replace Rahim, Aiman is simply discharging the duty he is empowered to do. Lastly, I personally feel that he is brave enough despite the repulsed reaction after the execution of Randy.
The last shot of Aiman before the film cuts to black.
Regardless, its very very difficult to tell from the film itself. In the course of the film, Aiman seems to be undecided on hanging as a form of punishment. And the final scene itself, Aiman seems to hesitate even after the bell had already rung twice.

Personal Thoughts

Changi Prisons in the 90s
"Probably the best Malay film since P. Ramlee's era."
I for one have great praise for Apprentice. It's a thrilling, dramatic show that pushes you to the edge of your seat till the very end. No scenes are wasted. The wonderful acting by the actors, direction and cinematography is well executed. Its concept is totally original and different from the reboots and adaptations of today's Hollywood blockbusters. The relationships and issues raised in the film is something we can all relate too but at the same time its nothing all too familiar.

Apprentice has definitely question my thoughts on the capital punishment. Do I think that it is necessary? Its a very tough question as I am ambivalent on the idea. I have always believed that to take a life away is not a decision on society or so called "people empowered" but rather by God himself. BUT at the same time, there are people committing capital offences and taking the life of others. I for one would look to religion and being a Muslim, there's even some debate within the Muslim community and scholars.

For centuries, execution has become acceptable within the Muslim world. It has been stated in the Hadith and the Quran itself, on what kind of offences evoke it and the way the execution is to be done. This is why almost all Muslim countries, except for Turkey, still instill Capital Punishment for capital offences.

So, did Aiman pulled the lever at the end of the film? My answer is yes. Despite the delay, he was brave enough to have pulled the lever. Simply because as I have interpret it earlier, he has finally gotten out of his father's shadow and is no longer pulled down by the burden of his mistakes. But I'd also like to elaborate further and give my take on a few unanswered plots of the film.

Chief Rahim was warded in the ICU after his RTA. I'd like to think that there's a happy ending for him. He survived the accident and regained consciousness. After getting to know that Aiman doing a great job on the executions, Rahim decides to withhold the charges and gives Aiman his blessings. Upon retirement, Aiman takes over as Chief Executioner.

To end my article, I'd like to share this final point. It's amazing to take note that the penalty of Capital Punishment that Singapore inherited from the British has been abolished since 1964 by the UK themselves. At this time, Singapore ceased to be a colony and was a state of Malaysia. Imagine if Singapore was still in British control at that time, the death penalty in Singapore may have been abolished as with other British Overseas Territories at that time.
Aiman looking thru a cell.
Taking over 5 days and hours sitting in front of my laptop, I've finally conclude my review and thoughts on Apprentice. I'll be looking forward to the DVD release.

Photo Credits: Google, Apprentice Film Facebook, YouTube