TIFF 2016: Apprentice Review

Contemporary World Cinema

Apprentice, directed by Boo Junfeng, is set in a Singaporean prison that looks oddly like the Don Jail or the Kingston Penitentiary. It stars Fir Rahman as Aiman, a relatively new corrections officer who finds himself fascinated by the Chief (Wan Hanafi Su), the man in charge of executing murderers and drug traffickers. This film certainly gets characterization right, and is a worthy injection in your film schedule.

Rahman uses his physicality to great effect as he plays a man dedicated to excelling in his career as a prison guard and would-be executioner. When Aiman is at home, he is either exercising intensely or verbally fighting with his sister (a brilliant Mastura Ahmad). Aiman’s sister is very much against his chosen profession, and every scene at home is one where you find yourself keeping score on who lands the last zinger.

At the prison, the Chief is memorable as he is not a sadist, but rather a quiet, respectful man towards his craft of executing offenders. I enjoyed watching both men learn from each other as the Chief shows Aiman the ropes, which have to be a certain length to ensure the appropriate humane method of execution, otherwise the executed dies slowly and painfully. Certain aspects about these characters are gradually revealed to show that something is amiss for this apprentice’s motivations in working for this prison.


I must give kudos to the set, which rivals – in terms of usefulness and scope – the abandoned department store in Nocturama and the mountains in Mimosas. If you have the location, make damn good use of it! The halls, the squeaking doors, the banging, the footsteps, the barbed wires, the unrelenting sun, the gallows, the sandbags, the cells – everything is authentic.

Pull the lever and feel the noose tighten around you as you enjoy this suspenseful psychological study. 

Michael McNeely is a deaf-blind film critic and advocate for greater accessibility in our cinemas. Read more about his story here.