If a camera were tracking Boo Junfeng, it would capture a staid man, often with a hand to his temple, speaking in a calm cadence — someone, you’d suppose, who’s nonconfrontational and easy to work with. And indeed, Boo has been able to direct his lens at hot-button subjects like the death penalty while securing support and funding from his government. He is a picture of vigilance and restraint that, fittingly, speaks to the reach and the limits of his country’s somewhat flawed democracy.
Apprentice, Boo’s 2016 film that received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, was selected as the Singaporean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards. It has won numerous plaudits, including the Grand Prix and Critics’ Choice Award at the 2017 Fribourg International Film Festival, and this year, the 34-year-old director was invited to join its international jury. In Singapore’s small but thriving film industry, Boo’s global success story has engendered great admiration — and allowed him to push the envelope, if ever so slightly, on capital punishment and LGBT rights.
But as evidence of the state’s calibrated approval of the film — a meditation on capital punishment from the perspective of the man pulling the lever — Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) gave it an M18 rating, restricting audiences to viewers 18 and older despite the absence of overt violence. Boo’s response is characteristically measured, describing his interaction with IMDA as a “constant conversation.”
The film centers on Aiman, a young correctional officer who gets transferred to a maximum security prison where he meets the chief executioner, Rahim. Apprentice shakes up the tradition of prison films by shifting the focus from inmate to executioner, and, in the end, moves away from the highly charged debate over right and wrong to consider the impossibility of assigning moral culpability.
Boo is personally opposed to capital punishment, but he says he didn’t set out to make “a downright anti-death penalty activist film.” His overriding concerns are the human condition and the weight of history. Sandcastle (2010), his first feature, explores political amnesia, but it is also a coming-of-age story about a teen who discovers that his late father was a Chinese student activist. The political, refracted through Boo’s lens, becomes personal.
Days after Apprentice was screened at Cannes in May 2016, Sarawakian Kho Jabing was executed in Singapore for murder. But in a country with mandatory death sentences, capital punishment is also meted out for lesser crimes, such as drug trafficking. Last year, Singapore doubled its number of executions compared to 2016. All eight executions were for drug-related offenses.
In October, tied to World Day Against the Death Penalty, Boo offered his movie to abolitionist group We Believe in Second Chances for a screening and a forum. “The film does play a part in inspiring these conversations,” he says, “but I don’t think the issue itself would have been a good marketing strategy.” Instead, he and his crew promoted the accolades they’ve received and the pride in having a Singaporean film debut at Cannes, which made it “more palatable” for people who might avoid a movie with a dark psychological core.
I like to believe that there is a common humanity in many of us, and the more we are in touch with it … the more we will be able to progress as a society.
For all their accolades, Apprentice and Ilo Ilo, another indie darling that won the Caméra d’Or award at Cannes in 2013, made little at the box office. Liew Kai Khiun, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University who studies local media, says that while Apprentice “definitely” has a place in Singapore’s film history, its lasting impact on “public consciousness” remains to be seen.
The eldest of three children, Boo grew up in a “comfortable” middle-class home and knew from the age of 15 that the world of cinema was where he wanted to be. But his scores in secondary school were lower than his parents hoped, so, as motivation, they said he could pursue film only after successfully completing his O levels. He did just that at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and, when he was 19 years old, he made his first short, A Family Portrait.
Ting Li Lim, the sound editor for Apprentice, describes Boo as “well-mannered” and “very quiet.” She remembers being surprised when she read the script for Family Portrait. “Because in the film he’s trying to make … a very strong statement [that] there is no gender when it comes to love.”
Beyond the world of film, Boo is a founding member of Pink Dot, Singapore’s annual LGBT celebration that has grown exponentially since 2009, inspiring similar events in Hong Kong and Japan. Pink Dot takes place at Hong Lim Park, the only location in the country that allows public demonstrations. The movement, Boo explains, never set out to be confrontational, choosing instead to engage with the public on “a more emotional level.”
“Maybe I’m still idealistic, but I like to believe that there is a common humanity in many of us, and the more we are in touch with it — the more we are able to look at it, feel it — the more we will be able to progress as a society.”
The statement is pure Boo: socially conscious but restrained; determined to move forward but sensitive to the weight of the past. And for those who assume the filmmaker made Apprentice to grapple with a fraught political issue, he proves that the humanity behind the issue is vastly more complex.
5 Questions for Boo Junfeng
- What’s the last book you finished? Probably The Art of Charlie Chan. I haven’t had time to sit down and properly read. So I think I read that about a year ago.
- What is the last movie you watched? One is a Tunisian film [Beauty and the Dogs] by a friend of mine. … She made a film about the rape of a Tunisian woman and how she was trying to seek justice in her society and is faced with all kinds of obstacles. … And then the other last film that I saw was when I brought my godson to watch Jurassic World [laughs].
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Sound. I cannot be in a completely quiet place.
- Who’s your hero? My parents..
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to go to Antarctica.
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