It’s always a risk to put out a film version of a popular horror video game. Some get it right; some get it very wrong. I couldn’t be happier to report that the Director, John Hsu, got the political horror film, Detention, very right. A Taipei Film Festival Award Winner for Best Actress, Narrative Feature, Sound and Visual Effects, not to mention Grand Prize, this film digs deep into psychological thriller territory. A high feat mixed with the tense political climate of its backdrop – 1960’s Taiwan, under martial law. The pressure of everything under that umbrella, eerily echoing the avenues we could possibly inch toward (freedom and oppression, loyalty, facing death) orbits our center figure, Fang Ray-Shin played by Gingle Wang.
What I really liked about this film is its deep exploration of how far we will go to protect ourselves at the expense of others, all done in various degrees and the horror of not quite knowing if you’re on this side of reality or not. Oh, did I mention the kick-ass monster reveal? We’ll get to that.
Based on the Red Candle Games video game release of the same name, we follow Fang during Taiwan’s “White Terror” Era of Martial Law. A senior student, battling trouble at home and a crush on her forward thinking teacher Mr. Zhang played by Fu Meng-po, awakens in her school late at night to a desolate simulation that teeters into psychosis and horror. She is met with fellow student Wei Chong-Ting played by Tseng Ching-hua, who is also unsure of how he arrived here. Together they soon realize that within this horrifying mirror image of their school, they now must battle ghastly creatures, wraiths, and nightmarish monsters to find the truth of their fate and the disappearances of all they knew.
The desolation of the school once Fang awakens is a beautiful allegory for her self-image, the political climate, and her current place in life. Familiar yet stifling. Dark, terrifying and unstable. There’s a tender sweetness to moments spent with classmates and Mr. Zhang that explore her delicate center amongst the harshness of the beige and uniform region. A daunting juxtaposition to the conditions she is thrust into within this fever dream. Look out for the Red Candle nod.
Banned in China because of its allegedly subversive subject matter, this film speaks to outrage, the willingness to think freely in a suffocating political landscape and the utility of democracy. The guttural dread that follows the characters as they twist and turn within the bounds of the grungy dream world pangs that feeling in all of us when a certain political move threatens rights of citizens or when lives of humans are considered expendable from one another. It’s a brave step for Taiwanese film and a much appreciated one considering its many accolades.
Writers John Hsu, Shih-Keng Chien and Lyra Fu created such a heady and glorious atmosphere of turmoil, terror and truth. Book Chien and Dennis Tsao’s sound design is foreboding and anxiety-inducing and binaurally alarming to say the least (listen to this movie with headphones or a great surround system to catch it all. The whispers, dear God, the whispers.). Back to our monster, who’s movement will haunt me for a while, is a visceral hodge-podge of every fear a Taiwanese citizen of that era would have dreamt of.
Lovers of game adaptations will not be disappointed with this film. An incredible cast whose light expressions towards one another had me screaming one moment and crying the next. But that’s the beauty of fear and sadness, you’re trapped by both.
Detention directed by John Hsu will be released on October 8th in select US theaters.
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