From 1949 to 1987, Taiwan experienced something known as the “White Terror”, a period of strict martial law in which the government prohibited and heavily punished freedom of speech; the number of incarcerations and executions are estimated at 140,000 and 4,000, respectively. Set in 1962, John Hsu’s “Detention” extracts all its horror elements out of the real-life nightmare that the Taiwanese people experienced during this time. It is also an adaptation of a highly praised video game of the same name.
Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng) is a high school student who partakes in a dangerous banned book club led by teachers Mr. Zhang (Fu Meng-po) and Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi). At the risk of facing the death penalty, Wei and his friends learn about subversive poetry and pro-freedom ideologies, but how long can their secret last?
The film starts in confusion, as Wei wakes up in the halls of his high school alongside fellow student and crush, Fang (Gingle Wang). It’s nighttime, and heavy rain has blocked the only exit from its grounds. As they try to make their way out of the dark place, an eerie telephone call warns Wei that his book club has been discovered and both professors and students are in great peril somewhere on campus.
The terror of repression is soon manifested in the form of a nightmarish creature that hunts and executes law violators. As they escape this apparition by running through abandoned halls, Wei and Fang try to figure out what led to this situation. What happened to the book club? Where is Mr. Zhang? Why were they discovered? And most importantly, why is model student Fang involved in all of this?
The film is structured like a puzzle that is slowly assembled through flashbacks and the nonlinear exploration of both Wei and Fang’s stories. The former has to face gnarly incidents involving his friends, and the latter has a shaky love arc that threatens to derail the film due to the borderline sexist scripting of it. However, patience is rewarded when Fang becomes a full-fledged character with impactful significance.
Fang is trapped in a metaphorical hell; her family is broken and after her only hope at joy disappears, her reality turns into anger, which eventually leads into a scalding blame that consumes her. The purgatorial halls of the “high school” become a form of self-punishment and an attempt at seeking forgiveness.
The whole situation is a manifestation of terror induced by a merciless regime and the psychological scars it left on Taiwanese people. From a book being extracted from the throat of a victim to a frightening monster wearing a KMT cap, every creepy encounter has clear political inspirations.
Chou Yi-Hsien’s candlelight illumination and the gothic set design provide an ideal atmosphere of terror. However, there are only a few jump scares, and you won’t be rushing to turn on the lights. First and foremost, “Detention” is a psychological film that is trying to explore the brutal past of a country, and despite the complexity of its plot, it truly feels like a historically relevant tale conveying a message of freedom and redemption.
“Detention” is an official selection of the Nightstream Film Festival, and it will be screened from October 8 to 15 . Remember to follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more spooky content and festival coverage.
Ricardo is a Mexico City based bilingual writer, digital animation graduate and awards season nerd. He also enjoys pro wrestling, is a Paddington fan and is the founder of the film website “La Estatuilla.”