Now available on VOD is a Taiwanese horror film, titled Detention. Based on the popular video game of the same name and directed by John Hsu, Detention is a really smart and surprisingly thought-provoking story about a group of teenagers struggling against tyranny during a period of martial law that darkened the country over fifty years ago. But the story’s themes are very relatable and surprisingly still relevant in our current age. There is a lot that modern audiences can certainly relate to, and more that we can easily imagine.
The film takes place in the early 1960s at the height of the Taiwanese Cold War. This was a dark period in the country’s history characterized by rigid government control and fear. The country is under martial law and any materials, thoughts or opinions that even have a chance of being characterized as anti-government are swiftly and harshly punished.
At Tshuihua Secondary School, the students and faculty survive as best they can, keeping their heads down and following instructions. In public, that is. In private, many are secretly waging a battle against the powers that be. A book club has formed, led by Mr. Chang (Fu Meng-Po). The students secretly gather in a small storage room and read from banned books. They embrace art and ideas and above all, freedom, as they dream of a world where these concepts do not feel so far away.
One day, students Fang (Gingle Wang) and Wei (Tse Jing-Hua) awaken inside the school after dark. The once familiar halls and classrooms become strange and distorted. Shadows of what they once were. They find themselves deep within the borders of a nightmare realm. Monsters lurk in the corners and the truth of how they came to be here slowly begins to come to light. The past calls out for answers, and accountability.
I can’t really speak to the quality of the film as an adaptation of the source material, having never played the game myself. But as a story, it is very compelling. The characters are all well written and well acted, and the way they bring the audience into this world is amazing. As horrible as the setting is, we see moments of kindness, light, and fear as they struggle to live under this regime, day and in and day out. Nothing about their situation is easy, and though they manage to find joy in the quiet moments, they never forget that these moments are few and far between.
Hsu does a great job at merging the real world horrors with the nightmarish landscape. We cut back and forth between Fang and Wei trying to navigate the frightening world where they find themselves and flashbacks to past events that brought them to where they are now. The space they now occupy is dark and filled with monsters, but the world they came from is equally terrifying.
The ideas at play give the story an added layer of depth. This is not just a tale about young dreams and ambitions being squashed by an unfeeling government. It also examines how its characters ultimately react to such an environment. Some bend and some break. Others remain steadfast, refusing to give in and rebelling to their last breath. But is that the way? What is better: To resist, no matter the consequences? Or to live to fight another day and hopefully be able to see the world take a turn? There are no easy answers here, but the way Hsu explores these questions makes his story both rich and compelling.
Detention is a film that delves deeper than you might expect, and is rich in compelling characters and difficult questions. Hsu uses the backdrop of the White Terror as a way to not only examine Taiwan’s history, but also look at the ways that living under an unforgiving regime can impact its citizens - particularly, its youth. The students at Tshuihua Secondary want nothing more than to think and dream freely, but they do so at their own risk. The nightmares in this film exist in more than just the dark and empty school that Wei and Fang wake up to. They are a part of every moment in their lives, and their actions have consequences that they can’t even begin to foresee.
Movie Score: 4/5