Director: John Hsu
Writers: John Hsu, Fu Kai-ling & Chien Shi-keng
Stars: Gingle Wang, Fu Meng-po, Tseng Ching-hua & Cecilia Choi
“Have you forgotten, or are you too afraid to remember?”
Traditionally, films based on video games have been lackluster at best and unwatchable in their worst iterations (we all remember Doom: Annihilation (2019), after all). Fortunately, that’s not the case with Detention (2019), a Taiwanese film based on the same name’s excellent indie game. The directorial debut of John Hsu, the movie adapts this story deftly without diminishing the game’s power and strengths. This thoughtful psychological horror flick delves into the horrors of Taiwan’s history while creating a poignant, haunting narrative that does not disappoint.
Remembering White Terror
The film opens in 1962 during an era known as White Terror, where Taiwan was under martial law, and political dissension often led to imprisonment or, more frequently, death. When high school senior Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) wakes up in her seemingly abandoned classroom, she finds herself trapped in a deserted school filled with nightmare creatures and buried secrets. When she discovers an underclassman–Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Ching-Hua)–caught there as well, the two band together to solve the mystery of their situation and confront ghosts of their shared past. As we soon discover, their story is linked to a small group of students, led by two teachers (played by Fu Meng-po and Cecilia Choi), organizing an underground book club to share banned material and express free thought.
We know this film is heavy from the opening shot of uniformed students passing through military checkpoints on their way into the school building. It only becomes more so as we abruptly shift from a day of secret meetings and unrequited crushes to dark hallways haunted with black-eyed ghosts. The truth is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks. The film takes both the amnesiac Ray-Shin and Chung-ting–as well as the audience–through a surreal landscape that leaves you wondering what is real and what is not. Heavy on symbolism without getting lost in it, Detention holds your attention as these characters unravel the truth about the events that led them there: a soured romance, a horrible betrayal, and the ultimate fate of their classmates and teachers.
Detention had a budget of a little over three million dollars, and the filmmakers make the most of it! The shots are tight, and the action feels appropriately claustrophobic. The creatures are delightfully unique and stay true to their in-game design. I do wish we had seen more of them, especially as they were such an important element to create tension in the game. The movie does offer a solid explanation for their symbolism by comparison, which works well for this medium shift. The monsters tower over the students, emphasizing how outmatched these teens really are. While the effects never quite make it to full-on scares, they remain unsettling all the same. I really enjoyed seeing how well they translated onto the screen!
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the suspenseful atmosphere of the game. Given the hours of gameplay involved in the original, that’s understandable. However, the lengthy amount of the film’s running time spent in flashbacks frequently undermines that suspense. It can be frustrating if you want big scares, but if you enjoy a slow burn that leaves you unsettled, Detention absolutely does that. It is one of the best video game adaptations I’ve seen in a very long time.
The Real Nightmare
I don’t think Detention is a traditional horror film, even with its nightmarish creatures and gruesome elements. It is, however, a ghost story. More specifically, it is a story about being haunted by your past and the choices you’ve made. The main conflict isn’t between the characters and the literal monsters they are fleeing. They never feel like much of a threat. Instead, the film focuses more on the societal structures that trapped young people in rigid roles and ultimately destroyed so many lives. They don’t shy away from the political overtones and effects of totalitarianism on society.
With an ill-fated romance (and love triangle) at the core of the story, poor choices are a given. But director Hsu isn’t interested in outright condemning these characters for their mistakes. The film is more interested in exploring how we come to make choices and then cope–for better or for worse–in the aftermath of those moments.
Ultimately, Detention excels in blending real-life atrocities with supernatural horror elements. It shines a light on a dark period of persecution and unrest for international audiences. In the process, it effectively makes this the true horror of the film. It’s a disturbing story that ends on a surprisingly poignant, satisfactory note.