An arresting story about the horrors committed during the “White Terror” in Taiwan, Detention directed by John Hsu, is another example of a film that tells a story with historical truths through the horror genre. The film is gripping, a nightmare to watch—literally almost the entire movie is a nightmare—with moving acting, directing and a powerful story.
Detention is about two students, Fang Ray Shin (Gingle Wang) and Wei Chong-Ting (Jing-Hua Tseng), at school in 1962 Taiwan and they are searching for the classmates and teachers who were part of an illegal book club.
One of The Better Game Adaptations
Learning this film is based on a popular video game is not surprising, as the horror fantasy elements reminded me strongly of not only Guillermo Del Toro’s films, Pan’s Labyrinth particularly, but also an anime called Corpse Party and the film Silent Hill, both of which were also based on a horror video game. The elements of the monstrous nemesis is common in games, and often they represent clues to a history or memory forgotten and how sometimes the worst monsters are a result of our own fears and prejudices. We invite them in.
This film does not solely live in the horror genre as it has romantic elements, and mystery as we try to piece together who was the “whistleblower”. The way it sets up that what we are seeing is a nightmare and, even knowing that, they are able to build the terror regardless is masterful. While our lead character, Wei Chong-Ting, is the one having the nightmare, it doesn’t appear the nightmare is solely for his benefit
Effects Are Not Great, But The Atmosphere Is Eerie
The special effects were not the best; however, combined with the fact that the nightmare is in the school at night, they were still effective in amplifying the fear. The appearance of the school, with its dilapidated look, peeling walls and all those stickers with writing splayed everywhere, just made an already dreadful feeling worse. I and friends have roamed empty halls in a regular school and, if you’ve ever attempted it, it is freakish. The echo as you talk and move around, the silence is thick and it feels like any moment could catapult you into horror.
Another film it reminded me of was La Llorona that adeptly crafted a story about a horrific history via the horror genre. This film is just as painful and by the end you hurt because this has a basis in history. Under martial law, reading books containing any material considered communist, left-wing or against the government—even the appearance of it—resulted in hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese people locked up and thousands executed. Knowing this raises the emotional stakes on viewing. I’m extremely interested in playing the video game, especially after seeing how well it scored on Steam.
Great Use Of Darkness and Actors Shine
The shots, shadows, angles and closeups are done with a purpose. The same for the music that plays softly, building suspense in the background. The editing effectively enhances the nightmare, particularly those creepy scenes of people sitting in an auditorium with burlap sacks on their heads. The use of color, particularly red in the nightmare makes everything else feel more terrifying and dead. Especially the school doesn’t look colorless, but like color—life—had been drained from it because of what happened.
The acting is wonderful, as the two lead characters carry the majority of the film. We feel their fear, we hurt and want to comfort them as they piece together their shared story and what it resulted in. Fortunately, the teenage girl crushing on her teacher didn’t go beyond drawing together and talking or that would’ve detracted from my enjoyment of the film and it would be best if this was retired entirely in film.
It’s not only a story that highlights a tragic, terrible history, it underlies the importance of living and remembering what happened in the past. It also tragically emphasizes how some kids, because of circumstances surrounding their upbringing or society, are forced to face situations and decisions no child should have to endure. It’s heart-wrenching to know this still happens in the world and isn’t confined to the couple of hours we watch a film or play a game. That’s why it’s so powerful, not only could it happen, it has; again and again as though we never learn.
This film is highly recommended but you may need a box of tissues by the end of the film. It’s heartbreaking.
*Top photo courtesy of NIGHTSTREAM