[…] In the end, Aiman’s story functions only as an emotive catalyst to give us the “subjective” experience of legitimately killing someone.
[…] It is the price to pay for a spectacular treatment of the theme, which risks missing the point – and the sad truth – about people legitimately killing other people: the efficacious perversity of the undramatic bureaucratization of execution.
Apprentice is a film about police and humanity, more precisely about the police state in Singapore and the humanity (and de-humanization) of both the victims and the executioners. At the core of the paranoid jurisdiction in Singapore shines the systematic use of death penalty, and this movie questions whether the executioners are nothing but perpetrators themselves killing on behalf of an entire society.
The prison system and the death penalty actually remain in the background of the story, which focuses rather on the career of the young Aiman, a prison guard who appears to be strangely seduced by the job of executioner. We discover that his father was among the victims of death penalty, and that his attraction/repulsion towards the old executioner is nothing but the repulsion/attraction towards his dead father. In a movie that is located almost entirely within the narrow spaces of small rooms, Boo Junfeng skilfully plays with Aiman’s increasing proximity to the death chamber to create a climax of psychological drama. But in the final part of the movie, the familiar roots of the drama and Aiman’s journey into his incumbent past begin to leave room for the experience of killing a man, and the story reveals a deeper attraction/repulsion to death itself.
This final shift that brings the story back into the present is very important, for the film would otherwise have obscured the broader theme of the death penalty in a strange subordination to the psychological theme of the individual familiar drama. In the end, Aiman’s story functions only as an emotive catalyst to give us the “subjective” experience of legitimately killing someone. Junfeng’s intentions clearly point to this final shocking experience, as is evident in his massive use of cinematic tricks – from the sound to the framing – in order to increase the thrill, together with a masterful control of the tempo of the movie.
If the weakness of the film lies in its somehow scholastic (or just Hollywood-esque) treatment of the theme, its strength is certainly in its capacity of pushing forward an incisive denunciation of the Singapore police system and of death penalty in general, without incriminating the individual policemen. But Apprentice seems to “understand” at least, if not to absolve, the executioner as a psychologically disturbed personality. This choice is certainly useful for fuelling the drama in the film and is probably just the result of this dramaturgical need. It is the price to pay for a spectacular treatment of the theme, which risks missing the point – and the sad truth – about people legitimately killing other people: the efficacious perversity of the undramatic bureaucratization of execution. Actually, the film hints at this truth at its very end. After the young apprentice has freed himself from the spectres of the past and decided to abandon this career, the manager of the human resource of the prison will still promote Aiman as the new executioner (after the old executioner suffered a severe accident). The most disconcerting character of Apprentice isn’t the executioner, nor is it Aiman in his perverse scheme, but it is the quiet and professional manager of the human resources…