Betrayal and unfaithfulness towards another become highly dispiriting in today’s time. And in some cases, the consequences can range from low to extreme. Committing acts of espionage, though, is deemed unforgivable. And the political complexity and brilliance of Detention is awe-inspiring, with it somehow being based upon a video game.
In fairness, director John Hsu’s direction feels like a video game at times. There are hunting for clues while the protagonists are chased by some demonic CGI monster, which reinforces that “committing acts of espionage or exchanging acts of betrayal results in death.” The nightmare “levels” each raises the difficulty. But that’s not precisely the critical case here because the production team crafted an intelligent, chilling story. The video game element is a subtle bonus in a psychologically tormenting look at how discomforting nationalism raises oppressors and the oppressed.
The setting takes place during 1962, over a decade into the “White Terror” era in Taiwan, where the right-wing government enacted martial law to maintain authority and tyrannize any form of punishment to those that wished to counterattack their statutes. Education systems forced many to understand the honor and integrity of the government, but if they didn’t, military officials would comb the landscape and take away individuals. As presented in this film, the school appears more like a demonic, supernatural prison (kind of like something you’d see in those scary video games).
The plot splinters between the female protagonist Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang) and her involvement in a book club specializing in reading and copying forbidden books. Someone gave up the details of the club, and there is a mystery to find out who did it.
While walking around the school with Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Jing-Hua), corpses hang from the ceiling, bodies with burlap sack-covered heads lie around and more sporadically haunt the conscience. These characters are in a hell of sorts, and they must try to get away from their impending damnation. And in all practicality, who wouldn’t want to escape these demons in a video game or reality?
The Taiwanese movie gives a disturbing look at the stirring histories from a country’s past and the actions taken to control mass populations. It blurs the drawn line between drama and historical menace, feeling like a form reverting to the Tartan era of filmography. The love affair aspect in the story feels unnecessary and sometimes bogs down the potency of this work. The writers would’ve been better off avoiding it entirely, continuing to zero in on the visceral, dark landscape based upon the 1947 Keelung high school incident.
Nonetheless, Detention earns its place by terrorizing the mind and soul of an individual enough to warrant a viewing. Hopefully, no one has confronted something like this first.