Fantasia Film Festival 2020: Detention

The Taiwanese Government was under martial law in 1962, so anything considered left-wing or remotely communist was barred and could be punishable by death. In John Hsu’s film Detention, we see how a secret book club puts the lives of both student and faculty in jeopardy.

Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng) is a student at Greenwood High School, and he is part of a secret book club where two teachers, Mr. Zhang (Meng-Po Fu) and Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi), teach banned books and art to eager students squirreled away in a forgotten classroom. If discovered by the school authorities, they will be taken away and tortured with the threat of execution if the offense is weighty enough. When Wei bumps into Fang (Gingle Wang), she sees one of his illegal books, and the secret is now at the mercy of an unknown factor. That night, they both wake up in a nightmare version of the school and must try to navigate the dark hallways as they try to remember how and why they got there.

With a supernatural twist, Detention tells the story of a moment during the White Terror, a period of martial law that controlled freedom of speech and thought in Taiwan from 1949 to 1987. Civilians were tried in military court, and anyone deemed to be subversive to the state was dealt with in extreme ways. It’s a slow burn of a film, with at times a slightly meandering amount of exposition through flashbacks, nightmarish memories and clues found throughout the school. The cast gave some heartfelt performances, but they were overshadowed by lengthy scenes of wandering deserted hallways and the horrific.

It’s a page out of a video game with CGI elements, and that’s because the film is an adaptation of an internationally-acclaimed Taiwanese video game. It’s an interesting way of marking a terrible point in history and one that will translate well to younger audiences who are into horror gaming, but here, they’ll learn something important.

Detention is doing well in its own respect, winning multiple awards worldwide (albeit banned in China), which is fantastic for Hsu’s debut feature film. It’s a unique way of subverting strict laws and speaking out against injustice by blending historical facts with genre.

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