The last thing you’d likely think when you hear a popular video game is getting adapted for the big screen is “I sure hope the end result is a politically charged, psychological horror movie.” That’s what makes director John Hsu‘s “Detention” so innovative and unexpected. The ambitious storytelling and sophisticated (and timely) themes make the complex ideas open to deeper interpretation.
Set during the White Terror martial law period in early 1960s Taiwan, female student Fang (Gingle Wang) and a friend are searching their haunted high school for clues to solve a mystery. Some of their classmates and teachers, all of whom were part of an illegal underground book club that met to read political literature, have disappeared. Simply having banned material is risky and the sentence for all dissenters is death. Fearing the worst, the pair go on a quest to find out what exactly has happened to their friends, and Fang discovers that she may have had a role in something truly horrible when she comes face to face with the ghosts and monsters that have seized their school.
There is so much going on in this film that’s impossible to dissect in just one viewing. Themes of censorship, loyalty to one’s party over country, the dangers of propaganda, tyranny, betrayal, and the rewards of standing up for freedom are universal topics that feel just as relevant today as they would have decades ago. The film’s finale plays like a tribute to the resistors and rebellious ones throughout history, those who have sacrificed so much to allow so many to survive and carry on a feeling of hope for the future. It’s a political drama but also a supernatural thriller, and blending the two makes for an original movie like no other.
The film is technically proficient, beautifully filmed with memorable (and creepy) imagery. There’s a bit of (passable) CGI in play with a truly frightening slender monster, but the simpler elements like lighting, set design, and sound combine to deliver the most thrills. The original score is stunning too, as composer Luming Lu uses staccato strings to ramp up the anxiety early in the story, then mellows the soundtrack out towards the end with soaring, deliberate melodies. Every element works together to form a cohesive whole.
The biggest criticism is the aggravating non-linear structure in the storytelling. There’s already so much complexity to “Detention” that playing with the narrative timeline feels unnecessary.
By: Louisa Moore
This movie was screened as part of the 2020 NIGHTSTREAM Film Festival.