Detention (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A historical horror based on video game

Taiwanese film “Detention” is an interesting piece of historical horror which is incidentally based on a popular video game of the same name. Although I do not have any particular experience or knowledge on the eponymous video game, I was entertained by its mood and style nonetheless during my viewing, and I appreciated how a number of creepy moments in the film come to resonate more with the chilling terror of its historical background.

The story is mainly set in one high school located somewhere in Taiwan, 1962, when the country and many of its citizens trembled under the martial law imposed upon them by the Taiwanese government. During this dangerous period, the government was willing to target anyone deemed to be possibly subversive, and its ruthless political purge, which is called the White Terror, resulted in the imprisonment of around 140,000 citizens and the execution of 3,000 ~ 4,000 people among them.

At the beginning, we observe how another day begins in the school as usual. While every female student wears the same neat shirts and skirt, all of male students wear the same brown uniform and hat which make them look like young military recruits, and we see male and female students separately passing the front gate of the school as being monitored one by one by an inspector assigned to the school.

While everyone in the school seems to go along with the constant control and monitoring over them, it turns outs that there is a small group of dissidents inside the school, who have surreptitiously resisted against the government via reading or copying many different books banned by the government just for being left-wing or liberal. Under the guidance of two young teachers, several students including Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Ching-hua) busily copy the banned books in an abandoned storage room inside the school, and they are sometimes a little playful even though they all aware of what will happen to them if they ever get caught by the police. Just like many arrested people including one of their teachers, they will get tortured a lot for extracting confessions from them, and they may be also executed if that suits the police.

The movie subsequently shifts its focus to the viewpoint of Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang), a female student who has attracted the attention of Chung-ting. Early in the movie, she finds herself suddenly being left in the school during one late evening, and she is flabbergasted to see how the school is suddenly turned into your average haunted place. While every classroom is empty and barren with no trace of teachers and students, it looks like electricity is cut off the school, so she has no choice but to walk along the dim and creepy corridors only with a lighted candle in her hand.

As she remains quite uncertain about how the hell she ends up being there, Ray-shin encounters a couple of disturbing apparitions, and then she comes across Chung-ting, who also somehow happens to left alone in the school. Sensing that something is quite wrong, they try to get away from the school, but, alas, the road in front the school is flooded due to heavy rain, and they have no choice but to go back inside the school.

Not so surprisingly, strange things keep happening around Ray-shin and Chung-ting, and they naturally become more scared and confused while occasionally experiencing a series of lucid hallucinations. It seems a really bad incident happened in the school, and Ray-shin and Chung-ting come to encounter several spooky entities including a monstrous creature which can be interpreted as the emblem of the White Terror in Taiwan.

While diligently serving one disturbing moment after another during its first half, the movie becomes rather monotonous at times, but then it shifts onto a more realistic mood during the second part, where it finally shows us what really happened in the school as well as what is exactly going on around its two main characters. I will not go into details here for avoiding spoilers, but I can tell you instead that we come to sense more of the growing guilt hovering around the story, and the story eventually arrives at a surprisingly poignant moment of forgiveness and redemption during its finale.

Although the screenplay by director/co-writer John Hsu and his co-writers Fu Kai-ling and Chien Shi-keng is occasionally flat in terms of story and characters, the main cast members fill their spots as much as they can, and their characters come to us as believable human figures to engage us. While Gingle Wang and Tseng Ching-hua carry the first half well together, they are also supported well by the other main performers including Fu Meng-po and Cecilia Choi, and the special mention goes to Hung Chang Chu, who is effectively menacing as required by his crucial supporting role.

On the whole, “Detention” is not wholly without weak aspects, but the overall result is better than expected, and Hsu and his crew members did a competent job of filling the screen with genuinely creepy mood and details while avoiding cheap moments of shock and awe. Although I still have some reservation on whether video games really deserve to be regarded as art, I agree at least that some of them can actually be the basis for entertaining movies, and “Detention” is one of good examples in my inconsequential opinion.

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