APPRENTICE, drama, not rated, in Malay with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), a new guard in a maximum security Malay prison, befriends an older man named Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), unaware at first that Rahim is the prison’s chief executioner — with a reputation built on the number of people he’s sent to their deaths. When Rahim’s assistant quits, he grooms the diligent Aiman for the position. But Aiman has a secret he keeps from his new employers and one that weighs on his conscience. His father, a former prisoner, was executed by Rahim years before. That’s the premise of director Junfeng Boo’s dark, unsettling exploration of prison life from the perspective of the guards.
At the start of his employment, Aiman says he wants to be of service to people. It isn’t the other guards but the prisoners he relates to — coming from a similar background and class to theirs. He’s haunted by the memory of his father, although he barely knew him, and he led a life of mischief and trouble before military service and undertaking his new position. Rahim, meanwhile, prides himself on his humane approach to executing prisoners. He makes efforts to provide them with small comforts and make their deaths as quick and painless as possible.
Boo’s film is an affecting indictment of a strict criminal justice system whose purpose is oppression, and it explores the traumatizing effects this system has on Aiman’s family. But doesn’t villainize its protagonists. They are human, even if charged with keeping others like animals, under lock and key, and their personal struggles elicit sympathy despite the grim nature of their work. Aiman, who came to the prison with the intention of teaching trades to prisoners in rehabilitation, lives with his sister Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad) who’s opposed to his new line of work and offended because of what happened to their father. But Aiman is increasingly drawn to the prison’s notorious E wing, where the condemned are given the hangman’s noose.
The film is staunchly against the death penalty. By focusing on guards instead of prisoners, it strikes an unexpected emotional chord. Aiman’s dehumanization starts the moment he enters the prison walls for the first time. But Boo avoids proselytizing. Rahim describes the details of his work in a manner that intrigues and chills in equal measure. He provides a treatise on the dynamics of noose versus neck that’s compelling but also uncomfortable in its pedantic descriptions of death. Rahim has learned after 30 years of experience that the best way to kill a man by hanging is to ensure a swift separation of the upper spine, resulting in instant death. Rahim sees this as a small blessing for the victim. But one leaves the theater aware of another kind of death — the death of the soul. is a gritty, realistic look at the ease by which that can become compromised. — Michael Abatemarco
Firdaus Rahman in a scene from Apprentice