A Film By Boo Junfeng
Genre: Drama • Year: 2016 • Country: Singapore | Germany | France | Hong Kong | Qatar • Running Time: 96 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Image: Colour • Language: Malay | English
The recipient of an unexpected standing ovation following its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng’s powerful second feature film is a bold and brave psychological drama tackling major subjects of great relevance and controversy: Singapore’s judicial system and Capital punishment.
However, as admirable and brave a work as it undoubtedly proves, the film does at times find itself slightly lacking in direction and clarity, with unnecessary padding diluting the raw emotional power that naturally exudes from the subject and central setting.
The film centres around Aiman, an inexperienced young Malay correctional officer and former soldier who has recently been transferred to the state’s maximum security prison. Shortly after arriving he is taken under the wing of Senior Sergeant Rahim, the prison’s regimented and unflinching Chief Executioner, who soon taps him up to be his new apprentice. Though eager to prove himself and face up to a troubled past, a dark connection to his new teacher, combined with disdain from his disapproving elder sister Suhaila leads Aiman to significantly question his new career path and his own moral conscience.
In exploring the moral and emotional effects of the death penalty from an executioner’s point of view, Boo keeps the film grounded, neutral and totally human, staying well clear of all the familiar prison film traits and clichés, but the prison scenes are by far the most intriguing and engaging sequences (if not always the most comfortable) and unfortunately Boo moves the action away from the prison confines far too often.
Respectful of the controversial subject matter, cinematographer Benoit Soler lenses the film with a delicacy and a gentle, observational manner, never allowing the image to feel too invasive and using extended takes to heighten the sense of anxiety and the character’s various psychological states of mind.
The MVPs here however are without doubt the sound department who do an extraordinary job in ensuring the intensity and unsettling atmosphere of the prison environment is as palpable and unnerving as could be hoped for. From the deafening crash of the gallows, to the crisp sound of footsteps on the cold prison stone, the echoing clank of keys and creaking metal doors, the roaring of car engines and the disquieting ambience of the prison corridors in general, all sounds and effects are rendered with great precision and remarkable authenticity courtesy of sound effects editor Maiken Hansen, supervising sound editor Ting Li Lim and re-recording mixer Warren Santiago.
The film has been selected as the Singaporean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s 89th Academy Awards, but despite widespread critical acclaim it is up against some very steep competition: Clash and Aquarius, to name just two.