The year was 1962, and Taiwan was under strict and prolonged martial law. Thousands of citizens were imprisoned or even massacred by the Kuomintang (KMT) party for being political dissidents. You read subversive books, you’ll get punished. You play puppets, you can get killed. It was a dark period of time in Taiwan history, but one that’s not known by many people, especially those outside of the country.
John Hsu’s directorial debut Detention, however, tries to depict this dark past of Taiwan — much like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness. But whereas the latter two lean on drama and subtlety, Hsu’s Golden Horse-winning film explores this topic through the language of horror. The result is not always flawless; sometimes the movie feels a little too caught up in its edgy non-linear narrative, and the CGI is also far from smooth, but for the most part, Detention delivers what it promises in the beginning: an affecting political drama wrapped in bone-chilling survival horror.
Based on a video game of the same name by Red Candle, Detention stars Gingle Wang as Fang Ray-shin, a senior high school student during Taiwan’s White Terror era who has fallen in love with her teacher and counselor, Chang Ming-hui (Fu Meng-po). We first meet her when she’s just woken up at night inside her classroom, still wearing her school uniform, with a rainstorm raging on the outside. Left with nothing except one red candle, Fang decides to go home immediately. But when she walks through the school hallway, she notices that the school looks different. No one is there. The classrooms are all ruined. Is it the storm or is it something else?
When Fang is nearing the school gate, another student who had also fallen asleep inside the classroom, Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Ching-hua), approaches her. And together they realise that the version of the school they are now in is not as same as the one they used to go to. Chang is nowhere to be found. Everyone is missing. What’s left is just a big, scary creature waiting to kill Wei and Fang in every situation.
So much of what’s going on in the first act of the movie takes place inside the school, as Fang and Wei are fighting to survive the night. But because Hsu does not give us any context nor depth into why these two characters are the ones which the movie focuses on, it’s tough to really care about them or the story. But even then, the horror elements are executed brilliantly. The movie never leans heavily towards jumpscares. Instead, it builds the fright and thrills in an elegant manner. Wang Chih-cheng’s production design, along with Yi-Hsien Chou’s glossy cinematography and Luming Lu’s eerie, string-heavy score make the journey all the scarier.
What the movie lacks in the first 30 minutes, especially in its shallow characterisation, thankfully, it makes up in the second act. Hsu finally gives us context into why Fang and Wei are entangled in this nightmarish purgatory through some flashback and dream sequences; into how their paths crossed even before the deadly event that happens in the first act of the movie. Yes, the flashbacks need to be cut a little, and also yes, there are some tropes, like the problematic relationship between Fang and Chang, that can be explored a tad more with more nuance. But Hsu manages to put so much care and empathy into both the story and the characters that it outweighs those narrative shortcomings.
What’s even more fascinating is the way Hsu utilizes the personal intrigue between the characters to dive into more interesting territories, such as the sociopolitical background in which the movie takes place. In that regard, what starts out as just a survival horror game-to-film adaptation evolves into something more complex: a touching drama about guilt and regret and an even more brilliant political drama, with a hopeful message exuded from any angle. Of course, it seems strange to define a horror movie about the dark history of Taiwan as hopeful. But that really what Detention is. In fact, at its core, the movie implores that fighting for freedom and against fascism is always worth to try if a country wants to move forward. “As long as someone’s alive, there is always hope.” That line, uttered by one character towards the end of the third act, could easily be the main tagline for the movie.
Though, in the end, the message is delivered in an obvious and non-subtle manner, Detention still feels revolutionary as it’s not unafraid to confront the topic it wants to address head-on. Some narrative flaws aside, Detention is an effective video game adaptation and an unsettling journey into the tragic history of Taiwan with an equally eerie visual and music, and strong performances from everyone involved.