REVIEW: 'Detention' is an allegory of Taiwan's White Terror martial law period

Marcus Goh

PHOTO: Encore Films

Detention was a big winner at the recent Golden Horse Awards, taking the best new director prize for John Hsu as well as the best adapted screenplay, best visual effects, best original film song, and best art direction prizes.

To make a movie based on a game, one usually needs a certain eye for crafting a coherent narrative. Games and movies use different narrative styles after all, and it takes skill to recognise the iconic elements of a game and then re-imagine them as moving pictures on screen. Detention manages to do so fairly successfully, which is impressive given that the source material isn't just the usual action-adventure game — it's a horror game.

The film tells the story of a two students who find themselves trapped in a haunted, horrifying version of their school at night. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, it is revealed that there is more than meets the eye to these two students. Ultimately, the students must come to grips with the literal and metaphorical ghosts of their past, if they are to escape their terrible fate.

PHOTO: Encore Films

If you're a history buff, then you'll enjoy the references to Taiwan's White Terror period, when martial law was enforced on the citizens. In fact, the entire movie is an allegory for that era. However, these are just references and nods to that era — Detention doesn't set out to make a political statement or such. Rather, it's a reminder of Taiwan's history and roots, and an appreciation for how its past has created the Taiwan of today. It weaves in an introspective look at this important time period, without forcing it on you. This historical element enriches the film, but it's not necessary for your enjoyment of the movie, which is why it's so palatable in this format.

It also helps that the film boasts a good-looking cast. Despite being subject to all sorts of horrible situations, Gingle Wang (Fang Ray Shin) and Tseng Ching-hua (Wei Chung Ting) are endearing characters who manage to garner your sympathy, even when you learn the truth of their situation and respective characters. Thankfully, they don't fall victim to the cliched (and sometimes inane) behaviour of horror movie protagonists, which contributes to their likability as characters.

PHOTO: Encore Films

The game roots of the movie are evident, especially so with the horror aspect of the film. You can almost imagine what the gameplay would be, given how the characters drive the plot forward. However, the gameplay elements don't translate perfectly into a film narrative. It's an ambitious effort to have the film stay as close to the game as possible, but you can see how the movie sometimes strains to hold together a story that was originally meant for a game.

It retains many of the key beats and scenes from the game, but this does come at the cost of the clarity of the narrative. The broad strokes of the story are clear, but the minutiae and details are not. The metaphorical storytelling portions of the movie make the plot unclear, muddying your understanding of what's happening. You keep questioning if characters have really died or come back to life, and it makes for a slightly frustrating experience in terms of story, even if you sort of get what's happening.

PHOTO: Encore Films

Oddly, the movie is not all that scary, despite it being a psychological horror film that's based on a horror game. There are some jump scares, but it doesn't have that lingering sense of tension nor many basic frights. It feels more like a romantic tragedy gone horribly wrong (to be fair, it is a tragedy), and perhaps should have been made with that aim in mind. It is a huge pity that the characters had to endure what they did, but it doesn't deserve to be called a horror movie.

Detention is one of those rare gems that respects its source material. It could have done with more polishing and some genre changes, to utilise the film medium more effectively, but it works well nevertheless. Ultimately, it's not so much horror as it is a tragedy, so you shouldn't go in expecting to be that frightened. But it's a good story that evokes strong emotions, and is a respectable film in its own right.

PHOTO: Encore Films

Score: 3.5/5

Running time: 105 minutes


PHOTO: Encore Films

Detention is a psychological horror film that is based on the video game of the same name.

The film is directed and written by John Hsu, with writing credits for Fu Kai-ling and Chien Shi-keng. It stars Gingle Wang (Fang Ray Shin), Fu Meng-po (Chang Ming-Hui), Tseng Ching-hua (Wei Chung Ting), and Cecilia Cho (Yin Tsui-Han). It is rated NC-16.

Detention opens in cinemas:
- 5 Dec, 2019 (Singapore)

PHOTO: Encore Films

Marcus Goh is a television scriptwriter who writes for “Crimewatch”, as well as popular shows like “Lion Mums”, “Code of Law”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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