Interviews

"Apprentice" is not a movie but an experience

Writer: Arivintiran Ponnan



"Apprentice" director Boo Junfeng (centre) with lead cast Wan Hanafi (left) and Fir Rahman (right).

Award Winning Director, Boo Junfeng who previously directed the critically acclaimed "Sandcastle" back in 2010 is now making waves with another gripping drama that centres on capital punishment.

The director meticulously took his time and wrote the story for over 3 years before it was finalised and all those years of work and effort is evident from the way the movie is being well-received all over the world. One of the notable achievements of "Apprentice" is that it was played at the prestigious Cannes film-festival just like his debut feature, "Sandcastle" and only recently, it won the NETPAC award (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) award for Best Film at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Awards.

The movie with its simple storyline not only tells a story, but embarks its viewers on an emotional roller-coaster ride that keeps us at the edge of our seat until the end. This, added with exceptional acting by the cast elevates the movie to another level which is why it's understandable that the movie has been chosen to represent Singapore for the 89th Academy Awards.

The movie revolves around two main characters that see capital punishment in a different light. Aiman, played by Singaporean actor Fir Rahman, forms a friendship with 65-year-old Rahim, played by veteran Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi, the prison`s chief executioner. When the latter's assistant suddenly quits his job, Aiman is asked by Rahim to become his apprentice.


A remorseful Aiman thinking about his bad past.

The cast and the director were present for the Malaysian premiere of the movie and Cinema Online was there to meet up with the talented actors and acclaimed director regarding their proud masterpiece "Apprentice".

Cinema Online: Junfeng, why choose the topic of the death penalty and what was the thought process behind it?

Boo Junfeng: Capital punishment is something I've always been concerned about especially on the issues in Singapore, and I think the reality in Singapore is that we are relatively living in a safe place and when people tend to have their comfort zone they tend to not question anything beyond the comfort zone in fear that it might unnecessarily rock the boat and maybe affect their status quo.

In thinking about addressing the issue within a film, I did not want to make a film that is coming from the viewpoint of a prisoner because we have seen many of those already and also I did not want the film to be didactic in nature as I felt that for a subject matter like this, it would benefit the discourse if there is a different entry point.

Hopefully, people will consider the issue from let's say Aiman's point of view in hopes that it will contemplate the issue from a higher standpoint.


Fir Rahman and Wan Hanafi at "Apprentice" Malaysian premiere at GSC Midvalley.

How did the movie perform in Singapore?

Junfeng: Truth to be told, the response in Singapore was much better than we expected. I actually heard that some stayed until the very end to see if there is an end credit scene but yeah, the reception was good.

We also received good feedback from social media sites where people said that some people actually sat for a while to think. Maybe because of how heavy the movie is and I also requested theatres to switch the lights on a bit later than usual so that the mood is there to think and reflect on what they just watched.

In the end we opened on 30 June 2016, we were fighting with "Independence Day 2" and "Finding Dory" but it lasted a solid 8 weeks in cinema which is encouraging.

Now, we are starting a second run with an independent cinema and all their screens are sold out for November so they are opening a new one for December. So, I think word of mouth is still continuing.


The cast and the director of "Apprentice" sharing a light moment between them.

There were some light moments in the movie, for instance the use of puns such as "learn the ropes first", so did you stop there with the puns or some got cut during the editing process?

Junfeng: Actually there was one scene that did not make the final cut, in one of the scenes where Rahim and Aiman are talking; Rahim will talk about how in one day he had to hang about 15 people and the next day he had a 'hang'over.

But I won't claim credit for that, as the joke was actually told to me by one of the former executioners, so it's not my joke.

What is your favourite scene from the movie?

Junfeng: My favourite scene was the most challenging scene which is the scene that starts and ends the film, it's the most technical scene and it was done on a steady cam for 5 straight minutes without cuts in a single take, but unfortunately I felt that for the movie to work it had to be edited into two minutes, one to start and one to end the film, but yeah that's my favourite scene from the movie.

Junfeng, what did you see in Wan Hanafi's "Bunohan" which made you decide to cast him for the movie?

Junfeng: We were casting for a long time in Singapore and Malaysia, finding for the right person but we couldn't find anyone. So, we went to a DVD store looking for Malaysians film with aged characters and one of the movies we picked was "Bunohan". As I was watching the film, I came across this beautiful looking old-man playing a flute and that's how I came across Wan Hanafi.

The charisma of Wan was so powerful that I immediately set up an appointment with him and when we met and he said his lines with a cigarette in his hand, he formed a very natural connection with his character, Rahim and so that is why I picked him.


Wan Hanafi explaining on how he met Junfeng and made the connection with his character, Rahim.

How did you create the chemistry between Wan Hanafi and Fir Rahman as their on-screen chemistry looks flawless?

Junfeng: One of the ways we were casting for is to give importance to the chemistry as I did not set any profiles for the actors such as race and so on. So, we were looking for an actor that goes well with each other, as for me casting without a racial profiling is a progressive way of casting.

We actually had a few actors who were fit for the role of Aiman, but we went with Fir because I felt he connected well with Hanafi more than the others and even Hanafi felt the same way about him too, so we decided to cast Fir for Aiman's role.

Fundamentally it was all down to the chemistry which translated well on-screen. Plus, they stayed in chalets, Wan, Fir and Mastura Ahmad. I also purposely made them drive me around the town so they can communicate and although I couldn't understand what they were saying as they were speaking in Malay, I saw the connection the both of them shared and that is what I wanted for the movie.

It transcends language and it's all about the genuine connection that's made between the two main actors and that's how I started to develop the relationship on how either of them feels about each other.


Fir Rahman sharing his experience of meeting the former executioners.

Junfeng, what was the research that you or your crew had to undergo before making this film?

Junfeng: Over the course of writing and researching this movie, I think I spent about three years where I met some former executioners in Singapore and I also met religious councillors who had experience accompanying death row prisoners in their last day. Other than that, I also met with the families of those who had been executed to understand how these families dealt with something like this especially when a breadwinner of a family gets hanged.

In fact, after meeting the first hangman I had rewrite my draft and it took me three months to actually capture his experience through the storyline.

Apart from benefitting the storyline of the movie, this meeting was a personal life lesson for me to meet people I never thought I'd meet and get glimpse of their reality which is way bigger than whatever that we are dealing with.

One of the most important thing through this research and with the experience of meeting all this people is that although I'm against the death penalty, I felt for the film to work the characters needed to have their own humanity and reality and only then the relationship between the two main characters would be believable.

So that is why as part of the research, I also advised the cast to meet the executioners and their families as well as to understand their thought process which can help them to get into their roles better and I believe it was an eye opening experience for them too.

"Apprentice" is chosen to represent Singapore at the Oscars, how do you feel about that?

Junfeng: There will be several stages to pass before we say we are going to the Oscars, I am just doing what we can, the Oscar campaign itself cost a lot of money and so we try our best. I went to L.A. four days ago, just for a one day show to the Academy members about the movie, and just do whatever is in my means to make the film noticed as we are contending for a space with 82 other films.

No expectations just doing our best.

Junfeng, what are your upcoming projects or any new films that you are working on?

Junfeng: There's nothing yet, but I am naturally drawn to issues that concerns me such as the humans right issue and about essentially trying to have society empathise a bit more or care a bit more about issues that should concern them.

I like to contain a big issue within an intimate and personal narrative which prompts the issue to become an experience for the audience. For now, the issue of faith is something that I'm interested in.

Maybe it will take another year, but we will see.


Junfeng's direction coupled with Hanafi Su's and Fir Rahman's acting is a recipe for success.

Junfeng, do you have any advice for upcoming filmmakers?

Junfeng: For me, the most important thing is to take your time. Producers are going to hate me for saying this, but and I am not advocating that 5 years is a natural period for people to work on a film, but I do think that a good film outlives the filmmaker and for that reason if you want a film to mean anything at all, it needs all the time it deserves.

Cinema Online, 26 November 2016


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