Fantasia Film Festival Screening – Director and co-writer John Hsu created a surreal historical thriller that combines psychological horror, political terror, and the spirit world in his new film Detention (2019). The movie is adapted from a popular Taiwanese video game, however, thanks to John Hsu’s excellent directorial style, the film avoids feeling like a video game come to life and is instead a nightmarish but grand fantasy narrative set within the microcosm of a high school. Detention was an impressive first feature film from this director, pulling on my heartstrings in sweet, emotional moments and making me squirm in particularly bloody moments, especially towards the end. Detention is a definite win for Southeast Asian horror films.
Based around the true events of the White Terror martial law period in Taiwan, Detention follows a small group of high schoolers and teachers who subvert the government by reading illegal books. They meet in secret on campus, knowing their quiet acts of rebellion are punishable by death. Lead by teacher, Mr. Zhang (Meng-po Fu), the group decides to take greater measures to hide their precious books by implementing a book exchange schedule crafted by student Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng), but when he accidentally drops the book in front of the impressionable student Fang (Gingle Wang), daughter of a military leader, a series of unfortunate events is set into motion that ends with them both unconscious. When both students wake up in a dilapidated version of their high school, they must face otherworldly spirits in frightening encounters to investigate what happened to the members of the book club, and together, find a way to escape the school’s deathly grasp.
The immediate terrors are the poltergeist and death spirits, but there is also an underlying terror from the threat of living in the oppressive environment of Cold War Taiwan, the period and place where Detention is set. Director John Hsu built an atmosphere rife with tension pitting these warring terrors against each other — the horror of blind indoctrination created a feeling of physical pressure while watching the film, and once the ghosts were introduced, the film truly became a horror with their gruesome makeup. The film is not necessarily body-quivering, screaming horror, but the political and ghostly horror aspects were established very early on in the film, which at least set a pace that sustained interest from start to finish. The film’s musical score helped to create this atmosphere — intermittently quiet to build anticipation and then easing in high pitched strings and blaring horns when going in for the kill.
Though the jump scares often fell flat to me, the scary moments were found elsewhere in the narrative. Throughout the film, I couldn’t quite tell if something psychological was going on, taking place in the minds of the characters after being tortured into unconsciousness, or, if they had died and are in the spirit plane stuck in a ghostly replica of their school, and it is the varying interpretations of this layered, metaphor heavy narrative that made the film a continually interesting watch. The special effects make-up for the ghosts and spirit creatures were often startling — the ghosts were perfectly grotesque, being a mix of faceless and mutilated figures, and the otherworldly spirits looked like some monster out of a Hayao Miyazaki anime brought to live-action. The CGI is not the best and practical effects and make up for the spirit-monster might have gone much further aesthetically, but otherwise, the way the monsters are used to parallel government execution was still scary.
After watching one ‘let’s play’ of this game online, it looks like director John Hsu exponentially expanded upon the game’s already dark, dreary, and creepy atmosphere. From an American standpoint, living through a time where 2020 society seems as though it is on a slippery slope sliding back to an Orwellian 1984 with the press and left-wing thought being deemed as treasonous by the current powers that be, the world of Detention feels relevant in an uneasy way, its tangibility sending a chill through my spine. The political horror is bolstered by the characters’ psychological subjection to torture leading to nightmarish hallucinations, making Detention a layer cake of terror. Banned from screening in mainland China, John Hsu’s adaptation Detention will be screening at the 2020 virtual Fantasia Film festival.
MOVIE RATING — 7 out of 10
|Runtime:||1 hr 42Mins.|