Every now and then I have the privilege of watching a film that moves me in some fundamental way, that taps me into the morphic resonance of humanity...
...There is a transferred sense of sorrow, loss, joy, and abundance that, though not an experience in which you partook, resonates on that human frequency. And so it is with Detention, the feature debut of director John Hsu, written with Shih-Keng Chien and Lyra Fu, making its Canadian premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.
Detention is adapted from the 2017 video game of the same name. Both the film and the game are set in Taiwan in the 1960’s during a period of martial law referred to as “The White Terror” which lasted nearly 40 years and is the second longest period of sustained martial law in modern history. During this time the government party and its agents ruthlessly hunted and oppressed any opposition to their regime and labeled participants and those who harbored or turned a blind eye to them as dissidents.
The period also saw a great banning of books deemed subversive or likely to inspire thoughts against the party. Anything considered communist or too left-leaning was banned and those found in possession of such literature were subject to execution.
It’s by way of these forbidden texts that a group of students at Greenwood High School and a pair of their teachers come up against danger and suspicion. In the secrecy of a hidden school supply room the group meets to read and copy from a collection of banned books, taking turns smuggling the books in and out of the school under the nose of the imperious Inspector Bai (Hung Chang Chu).
The willowy Ms. Yin (Cecilia Choi) reads aloud while the bookish and handsome art teacher Mr. Zhang (Meng-Po Fu) procures the books for the group. The level-headed Wei Chong-Ting (Jing-Hua Tseng) acts as the unofficial student leader of the book club, always working overtime to keep his friends, teachers, and above all, the club, safe.
Enter Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang), a high school senior with a troubled home life under the council of Mr. Zhang, their relationship edging ever-closer to inappropriate.
After a teacher at the school is publicly apprehended, beaten, and dragged away for possession of seditious materials, the noose of fear and paranoia begins to tighten around the group. When an unknown informant exposes them, Wei and Fang find themselves quite literally thrown into a parallel shadow world of their high school, pursued by phantoms and whispers as they revisit recent events and peel away the layers to expose the truth of their betrayal.
The film makes interesting work of playing with time, reality, and the supernatural in juxtaposition to factual and dramatic historical events. I’m reminded of Pan’s Labyrinth in its interweaving of fantasy and reality, using one to highlight the other. Detention could have played fully one way or the other, full fantasy or full drama, and been devastatingly successful as the themes and messages remain the same, but it’s the use of the fantasy that lends it an authenticity in the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did. Ofelia used fantasy as a way to cope and navigate the complicated and adult circumstances she was thrust into. The same holds true in Detention. It requires a dose of the supernatural and the fantastic for Wei and Fang to reckon with the very adult monsters they’ve been pitted against.
The film takes all of the essential cues from the game and balances the starkness of oppression and the shade of netherworld gloom. Detention is at once somber and vibrant, pulling its pulse from the excellent performances of the entire cast, both child and adult. One has to wonder how personal the subject matter might be given the age of some of the cast and filmmakers and the fact that the real-life events that form the backdrop of the narrative are within their lifetimes. Even when the threats are inhuman, Detention never falters in its own humanity.
It’s hard to say more about this film without dimming the lights for anyone who may wish to watch after reading this. But suffice it to say that Detention succeeds on every level, as an adaptation, as a work of horror, and as a historical drama. It is an important film for an important time and is worth every second of its running time. It has earned all of its thus far accrued accolades and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Detention is currently being featured at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival.
By Paul Bauer