Detention

In John Hsu’s adaptation of Detention the terror is frighteningly real.

“For subverting the government the punishment is death.”

It is the height of the White Terror in Taiwan – a period of martial law that lasted for the better part of four decades – and despite the suppression of radical ideas, numerous counter-government groups have formed in schools and other places of education. In Greenwood High, Mr. Chang and Miss Yin have organised a banned books study group to fight the oppression. The latest member of the group is Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang), who has something of a crush on Mr Chang, and convinces her friend Wei (Tseng Ching-hua) to let her join.

One night she awakens at her desk, after a seemingly normal day (or as normal as one can get during this time of military dictatorship), all alone. The classroom is ransacked, destroyed and the school has transformed into some sort of terrifying dream reality. Confused and scared, she begins to explore the school, with only a candle in hand and an equally lost Wei in tow, and it soon becomes apparent that there may also be a traitor in the study group.

Detention is almost two different movies playing simultaneously. The present-day horrors are often interspersed with flashbacks to the days leading up to these events. These have a vastly different feel to the rest of the movie and have something of a political drama-thriller vibe to them, and while they do temporarily remove the audience from the ratcheting tension and surreal imagery, they also work really well to compliment the story. This is because Detention absolutely feels like a real-life survival horror game and while the backstory and lore of those games are often detailed in diary entries found, or occasional internal monologues, that doesn’t really work for the medium of film.

And what’s the point of having all of the excellent dread of walking down a narrow hallway with only a flickering candle to guide your way if there isn’t any meat to flesh it out? By offering us a view of what the world was like before, and increasingly satisfying moments of cathartic resonance, Detention actually works better as a video game adaptation than almost anything before it. These moments of reality help ground the film in a way that games don’t need to do, simply by sheer virtue that the players are living those moments day to day while actively engaging in the horror content.

In a lot of other films, Detention’s strange habit of switching from nightmarish hellscape to political drama would feel like tonal whiplash but director John Hsu, as well as his co-writers Fu Kai-ling and Chien Shi-keng are able to use these lulls to effectively make the later scenes of tension more effective. The opening scene might have had more dramatic punch if it had been Fang waking up at her desk, but seeing the school as it was in the day both establishes the dramatic stakes while also accustoming us to the fact that it won’t be all spooks and scares.

While the movie does sometimes remind me of a gimmick episode of Doctor Who – especially when the demon presences are shown for the first time – that doesn’t take away from the tension present in the majority of those scenes. Both Fang and Wei are unarmed and extremely vulnerable which makes almost ever danger to them extremely threatening, even if they do look a bit on the silly side at times. Setting the game during this period of Taiwan’s history helps make the whole thing work much better than if it had been just a generic haunted school story, even if it does sometimes gloss over the politics which make up such a strong part of its identity.

I don’t know how Detention works as an adaptation, admittedly. I haven’t played the game, but as a piece of horror fiction it does a more than satisfactory job, offering lots of chills and memorable moments.  The red-lit assembly hall where Fang sees herself hanging and the first time we see the military police demons are striking, awesome visuals that I’ll always remember, even if they’re not terrifying per se. Well, either way, it’s a damn sight better than Resident Evil.

Verdict: It sometimes has trouble balancing its historical drama and horror elements but Detention’s arresting visuals and dread-drenched scenes more than make up for its flaws.

Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: 6/10
Scares: 5/10
Politics: 10/10
Mr Chang: Dude was crazy jacked


Detention (2019)
Also known as: 返校 (lit. Back to School)
Mandarin

Director: John Hsu
Writers: John Hsu, Fu Kai-ling, Chien Shi-keng


CAST

Gingle Wang – Fang Ray-shin
Fu Meng-po – Mr. Chang Ming-hui
Tseng Ching-hua – Wei Chung-ting
Cecilia Choi – Miss Yin Tsui-han
Hung Chang Chu – Inspector Bai
Hsia Ching-ting – Fang’s father
Jessie Chang – Fang’s mother


Director: John Hsu
Writers: John Hsu, Fu Kai-ling, Chien Shi-keng

CAST

Gingle Wang – Fang Ray-shin
Fu Meng-po – Mr. Chang Ming-hui
Tseng Ching-hua – Wei Chung-ting
Cecilia Choi – Miss Yin Tsui-han
Hung Chang Chu – Inspector Bai
Hsia Ching-ting – Fang’s father
Jessie Chang – Fang’s mother

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