If prison walls could talk

Boo Junfeng on the four-year prep 
behind his latest film Apprentice

If prison walls could talk

His film Apprentice is set in a fictitious Singapore prison, but finding local prisons way too “new and sterile”, Boo Junfeng ended up googling for suitable prison locations in Australia, the homegrown director revealed at a press conference on Monday to announce the film’s theatrical release.

Filmed against sparse backdrops and shadowy tones, Boo’s latest and second full-length feature film after 2010’s acclaimed Sandcastle is a poignant story about Aiman, a correctional officer, and Rahim, the prison’s chief executioner who eventually took on the younger man as his apprentice. The roles are played by Singapore actor Fir Rahman and Malaysian veteran actor Wan Hanafi Su respectively, with local actress Mastura Ahmad playing Aiman’s older sister. Rarely has there been a film, local or foreign, that features the perspectives of an authorised executioner as well as family members of the executed.

The soft-spoken director wanted the prison setting to be a spatial representation of Aiman’s mental state as the character embarks on a journey of self-discovery, so he eventually settled on two long-abandoned British Colonial facilities near Sydney. Upon seeing the film, audiences will be mystified to learn that the fictitious Larangan prison, according to Boo, actually comprises “seamless edits of an office in Ayer Rajah, a corridor in Beach Road, an unused prison in Hunter Valley and a gallows set built in Singapore”.

The 32-year-old took over four years to research, write and produce the film, which includes interviewing former executioners, religious counsellors who worked with death-row inmates, and families who lost loved ones to the death penalty.

Preparation is so important to the mild-mannered film-maker that he placed his three leads in a chalet for three days to bond and rehearse together. “I want them to be part of my research process and to go through the technical and bonding processes,” he explained. “Fir and Wan also had to attend a rope-making workshop where they learnt how the ropes (for the nooses) are tied, (and) the different textures and sounds they make, which I feel is integral to the film.”

That the three main characters are Malay was by chance. “Casting took over a year and was spread across Asia. Ethnicity was never a factor,” Boo clarified, responding to host Danny Yeo who had commented that the movie was well-cast. “We finally settled on Fir and Wan as they have this wonderful chemistry together. As such, we had the script translated into Malay for the intimate bonding scenes. The role of Aiman’s sister then logically has to be Malay too and that was how Mastura was picked.”

Apprentice had its world premiere in May at the 69th Cannes Film Festival’s Official Selection under the prestigious Un Certain Regard category. Though the film did not win any awards, it received a standing ovation and garnered mostly positive reviews from international critics.

With capital punishment being a hot topic, Boo — who last contributed the segment “Parting” for the SG50 film 7 Letters — hopes the film will enlighten audiences of the human stories connected to the subject.

He mused: “I know we are up against the likes of Finding Dory and Independence Day, but I do hope the story focus and positive reviews will encourage audiences here to watch Apprentice.”

Apprentice will hit cinemas on June 30, with sneak previews from June 24 to 26. Boo Junfeng will also be meeting fans at a Blog-Aloud Session on June 21, 7.30pm at GV Plaza.

Photo: Yew Jiajun

This story first appeared on TODAY.

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