[Review] John Hsu’s video-game based ‘Detention’ reimagines Taiwan’s White Terror as fantasy horror

The law is intended to maintain order and protect civil liberties. It may not always work out that way, but there is at least a process in place to give us some peace of mind. Supposing ordinary law is suddenly superseded by something far more restrictive and absolute — what then? As history has taught us again and again, this frightening idea isn’t inconceivable.

Between 1949 and 1987, Taiwan was under martial law. This period of military rule was dubbed the “White Terror” and it included the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) imprisoning 140,000 people. Of those prisoners, up to 4,000 were executed. This tragic era saw the one-party system singling out anyone they feared would resist the KMT. Modern media has memorialized and reflected on this upsetting epoch by recounting the events through books, movies, and even a video game. In 2017, Red Candle Games released Detention, a survival side-scroller set during the rule of White Terror. The popular game then inspired a novel as well as a 2019 movie of the same name.

Like the film’s basis, John Hsu’s debut feature takes place at a school in the early 1960s. All literature containing Communist or leftist thoughts have been banned, and anyone caught with them would be punished. The main story centers on two students, Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) and Wei Chong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua), who become trapped on campus one rainy night. As they’re then pursued by a sinister, otherworldly force that preys on rebels, the truth about a resident teacher’s disappearance comes to light.

When not in lockstep, a few young individuals escape tyrannical rule and seek comfort in smuggled writings. Wei and several other classmates have risked their lives to study poetry and music with two teachers, Mr. Chang Ming-hui (Fu Meng-po) and Miss Yin Tsui-han (Cecilia Choi). Their secret order comes to an end, however, when Chang is detained by the military. The reason why has to do with a banned book in his possession being discovered and confiscated. The question now is, who turned him in?

You aren’t expected to be fully informed about the history of White Terror seeing as the movie educates along the way. Even as we’re thrown headfirst into a preexisting situation that so many of us were unaware of to begin with, Hsu’s script isn’t overly complicated. Monotonous attire, militant authorities, and mandatory pledges of allegiance say more than exposition ever could. These visual aids establish an age of hardship and severity; they provide framework and context in a way that words can’t.

Detention has elements of reverse storytelling, but it’s more of an allegorical puzzle waiting to be finished”

Detention has elements of reverse storytelling, but it’s more of an allegorical puzzle waiting to be finished. All the scattered pieces are there in plain view — they just need to be sorted in order to make sense. While the disjointed chronology can be taxing, especially given the movie’s swan dive approach, the assemblage is downright captivating. The fabric of Hsu’s film is pressed and immaculate; no scene ever feels unnecessary or less crucial than the next. It’s a carefully detailed picture where each moment has significance.

As upsetting as this period of Taiwanese history is, Hsu emphasizes the especially heinous parts of it with imposing supernatural elements. This includes the perceptive use of a towering, nightmarish creature based on a specific entity from the game. The embellished reinterpretation of a giant “lingered” — a universal name for the various schoolyard spirits inspired by regional folklore — embodies the KMT’s extremist behavior and utter frightfulness. Select scenes with the ghastly monster and other ghosts never feel out of place in spite of their fantastical function. Similar to the ghouls seen in Pan’s Labyrinth, the lantern-toting specter and its ilk are a powerful manifestation of the characters’ anxiety. The instances where the protagonists run from their paranormal pursuer not only evoke the interactive nature of the source material, they visualize this imminent threat the citizens had to live with for almost four decades.

A serious plot development could make viewers reconsider how they feel about a certain character. Be that as it may, we have to remember people then were raised under an iron fist with no visible end in sight. They yearned for things people take for granted every day; they were killed for being different. This was their new normal and failing to uphold the status quo resulted in incarceration or worse. Although what the person in question does in the story perilously changes how you will perceive them, Hsu isn’t so ready to write them off himself. He never takes hope off the table, and he offers redemption not as a courtesy to the audience, but as a reminder that it’s never too late to do the right thing.

“[Detention] is soaked in both sadness and the reassurance that there is always a chance for compassion”

From one end to the other, the film is soaked in both sadness and the reassurance that there is always a chance for compassion. Hsu depicts everything with evocative symbolism and morbidly beautiful visuals. Detention is essentially a plea to always remember and learn. For the movie relays the important message of how we cannot afford to forget mankind’s worst moments because they make us uncomfortable. Doing so only causes history to repeat itself.

Originally reviewed during Fantasia Fest 2020 for NOFS

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