Chillingly Powerful and Thought-Provoking, DETENTION 返校 Is More Than Just a Nod to a Dark Period in Taiwan’s History
Fang Ray-shin wakes up in school. She meets fellow student Wei Zhong-ting and they find themselves trapped on a vacated campus after school. As a series of mysterious events unfold around them, they realise that their hope of escape hinges on finding out what had happened to their friends and teachers while they were asleep. However, have they really forgotten what happened or are they just too afraid to recall it?
Director: John Hsu Han-chiang
Cast: Gingle Wang, Tseng Chin-hua, Fu Meng-po, Cecilia Choi
Language: Mandarin Chinese
Runtime: 102 minutes
Detention follows Fang Ray Shin and Wei Chong Ting, two high school students who wake up in school in the middle of the night without any memory of what happened earlier. As mysterious events start happening, the two are forced to confront their own dark histories in order to figure out the truth. Gripping and suspenseful, John Hsu’s feature debut is an example of a video game film done right.
Considering the political tension among Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, it is easy for Detention to fall into the trap of being too preachy due to the film’s historical setting, taking place during the “White Terror” period in Taiwan, which was a period of martial law lasting 38 years and 56 days, from 20 May 1945 to 15 July 1987. Luckily, by putting the story and characters first, Detention manages to achieve a balance while presenting an intriguing narrative full of twists.
That is not to say Detention has no flaws. There are moments where certain dialogues may come across as a little too on the nose and unnecessary, but these moments are rare and mostly forgivable due to the solid performance by the cast.
Gingle Wang’s portrayal of a quiet and innocent high school student easily wins us over to her side from the start of the film. However, the biggest surprise comes from newcomer Tseng Ching-hua, who gives a surprising performance in his acting debut, showing good chemistry with Wang’s character while also bringing a sense of purity to his role as a high school student, and his potential shines through.
One issue that horror films often face is creating a believable world for audiences without seeming repetitive, especially if the film is set in the same few locations throughout the story, and nothing screams mediocre more than boring set pieces and awkward lighting that draws attention away from the story. That is not the case for Detention. Every element of the film seems to work wonderfully together, from the exceptional art direction to the haunting cinematography that compliments the film’s eerie atmosphere.
Balancing surrealism and realism perfectly, the art department manages to create a world that looks perfectly natural in one moment, before turning into something out of a nightmare in the next. Cinematographer Chou Yi-hsien does an amazing job at translating the atmosphere of the game to the big screen, using bold lighting choices, ominously smooth camera movements and daring compositions to heighten the sense of fear and suppression faced by the characters.
What really stands out from this film, besides the story, is the passion and respect the entire cast and crew has for its source material. Detention comes across as a homage to the video game it’s based on, with a similar storyline and even some shots in the film look similar to the game. But not to worry, Detention is capable of being a stand-alone product for viewers without any prior knowledge to its origins.
While Detention is an emotionally heavy film full of twists, it doesn’t end up being too depressing or convoluted. In fact, Detention’s message to the audience is simple and heartfelt: while forgetting a traumatic past may seem like an ideal solution, remembering the past is actually the best way to face the future.
As the story is set in a period of martial law in Taiwan, its political significance naturally becomes a highlight of the film. The political aspect is an essential background to the story, but with such a strong similarity to certain incidents during the Hong Kong protests, it is easy to see why the film’s deeply rooted political themes might overshadow its effectiveness as a suspenseful horror-mystery.
However, Detention’s allure comes not from its brutally honest political commentary, but in its ability to incorporate its historical context into the film’s horror aspects, subverting the horror genre as we know and creating a new subgenre – cultural horror. While most of the scares in the film are quite direct, the true horror of Detention lies in its portrayal of an entire country of people forced to blindly accept what is being fed to them and to obey unconditionally, or risk losing their lives. Books, songs and films were banned if they were deemed to be conflicting with the government’s ideals, or if they were written or translated by a “person of interest” to the party. And all this happened in just the past few decades.
This fresh take makes Detention a multi-layered horror film with elements of body horror, psychological horror and cultural horror, spanning from micro- to macro-scale. Detention uses stories of the little people to reflect the helplessness of an entire era, and in doing so, warns us that history can repeat if we do not remember the struggles faced in the past that gave us our freedom today.
Detention may not be the best film of the year, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important films of our time.
You can catch Detention in cinemas now. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer: