Moments before he was supposed to go on stage to give his opening remarks at Cannes Film Festival back in May, where his movie Apprentice was selected to be screened in the Un Certain Regard section, director Boo Junfeng was trembling.

He was feeling all the emotions – fear, anxiety, trepidation, nervousness. Understandably so as Apprentice was five years in the making and will be shown for the first time to the public. The audience in Cannes is known to be brutally honest and unforgiving.

“You never know how an audience is going to react to a film. And the cast was going to watch the film for the first time too,” Boo remembers.

“Directors are the most vulnerable creatures in film festival because our names are attached to the film, We are the face of the film.”

He needn’t have worried. Apprentice not only got a standing ovation after the screening, the film received rave reviews from the critics.

The film – opening in selected GSC cinemas – has since travelled to several film festivals such as Toronto International Film Festival, Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival as well as the recently-concluded Tokyo International Film Festival.

In early October, Boo was awarded the Rising Director trophy at the Busan International Film Festival. Boo is truly on the rise thanks to Apprentice, his second full-length feature.

The film tells the story of Aiman (Fir Rahman), a young prisoner officer who is taken under the wings of prison executioner Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su). Aiman learns the ropes of being an executioner from Rahim but there’s more than meets the eye here; Rahim was the man who executed Aiman’s father some 20 years ago.

Instead of tackling a story from the angle of prisoners on death row, Boo decided to take the road less travelled.

“In the past, we have seen films like Dead Man Walking and The Green Mile where the death penalty is seen through the point-of-view of the prisoners. I felt this person who is empowered to kill exists in many society and we have not heard much from them and I am curious about their point of view and their take on the moral and ethical grounds,” Boo says in an exclusive interview in Tokyo, Japan before the screening of Apprentice.

Boo junfeng

It took three years for Boo to research and write Apprentice. The film was shot in a period of 29 days in two countries, Singapore and Australia. Photo: Peanut Pictures

“So, the story of Aiman, a man who wears the uniform and has to do his duty but at the same time, a casualty of the death penalty (as his father was executed), what are the dilemmas that he faces? I wanted to explore the psyche.”

While it tackles the controversial issue of the death penalty, Boo insists, Apprentice is not a film solely on this matter.

“Yes, I am against the death penalty especially when it is mandatory. But I always emphasise that is not what the film is about. I hope the film provides a different point of entry to audiences so they can decide for themselves how they want to look at the issue,” the director, who turns 33 next month, says.

Audiences will be surprised to know that most of the dialogue in this Singapore film is in Bahasa Malaysia. Apprentice didn’t start off as a BM film, in fact, Boo wrote the script in English. However, the director wanted the filmmaking process to be fluid and not be constrained.

“When it came to casting, we did it colour blind. We decided from the start that it didn’t matter if the characters were Chinese, Indian or Malay. We wanted to find the best chemistry and it turned out Fir Rahman from Singapore and Wan Hanafi Su from Malaysia had the strongest chemistry.

“It came naturally, and they both happened to be Malay and that’s when we decided to translate the script to Malay,” the soft-spoken director offers.

But there’s just one problem, a tiny one perhaps. Boo doesn’t speak the language. He knew he could overcome this as he had directed a film in a language he is not familiar with in 2004. “My first short film, A Family Portrait, was in Spanish, a language that I didn’t speak. To me, a good story and good cinema transcend language and geographical boundary.

“That said, I didn’t expect myself to be directing a BM film. While it was daunting at first as I didn’t speak the language, it helped that I wrote the script in English, so I knew what the scene was about and what the actors were saying. I think the nuances and the language were something I could hear,” Boo says, adding that he took three years to write the script and another two to develop, find funding and shoot.

Apprentice, with a budget of SG$1.8mil (RM5.5mil), was shot in the span of 29 days spread over two months and in two countries – Singapore and Australia. The latter location was picked as it presented the perfect setting for the prison scenes. Shooting overseas meant a whole set of problems that come along with it. Boo remembers having to get all cast and crew who were traveling to Australia for the shoot to help pack film equipment in their luggage.

Boo was particularly impressed with Wan Hanafi Su's performance in Bunohan, which led him to cast the Malaysian actor in Apprentice.

Boo was particularly impressed with Wan Hanafi Su’s performance in Bunohan, which led him to cast the Malaysian actor in Apprentice.

“We shot in Australia because we couldn’t find a prison location that was suitable either in Singapore or Malaysia. Since it was a relatively small production, it was all hands on deck. We had to pack equipment, props and all kinds of things into everyone’s luggage. We had boxes of strange things like concave mirrors, metal rods that were meant to be assembled when we arrive in Australia and they were all pushed in through customs by the cast and crew,” he recalls.

Boo’s love affair with films began when he was in his teens. Exposed to mostly contemporary Hollywood blockbusters at that time, Boo found himself attracted to the way a film was made. While his peers were glued to watching the actual films, Boo much preferred “the making of …” portion.

“I have always wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 15. I fell in love with the idea of make believe: That within the frame of a film you are able to take the audience to a different world, recreate a different reality and suspend the audience’s belief, so much so they are carried into a different world. Yet beyond that frame, you will see a set – a boom mic, a camera, the set. To me I was very fascinated by the movie-making world,” he speaks with wonderment.

So, at 16 he enrolled in a film school. He graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School Of Film & Media Studies in 2003 then furthered his film education in Lasalle College of the Arts. He didn’t harbour the intention to direct at first, though.

“Plus it was difficult to direct (in film school), because everyone wanted to be a director,” he laments. Instead, he specialised in production and art design as that was part of his fascination with filmmaking.

But a trip to Spain changed all that. “It wasn’t until I went to Barcelona for an exchange programme for six months that I got to write and direct my first short film,” Boo says, referring to A Family Portrait.

He followed that with several other notable shorties and made his debut feature-length film, Sandcastle in 2010. That film also made it to Cannes Film Festival.

With two highly-regarded features under his belt, Boo admits there is a bit of a pressure as he embarks on his third project. However, he will continue to explore themes that are close to his heart.

“The next film will be looking at something that matters socially, larger social implications, but able to be contained within an intimate and personal narrative, something I tend to be interested in. What drives me as a filmmaker is being able to tell stories that I care about.”

But for now, Boo is busy campaigning for Apprentice, Singapore’s entry for Best Foreign Film for the upcoming Oscars.

The director was in Los Angeles recently to speak to critics and present his film for consideration to the members of the Academy.