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Fantasia Film Festival 2020: Detention

Director: John Hsu

Writers: Shih-Keng Chien, Lyra Fu, John Hsu

Starring: Gingle Wang, Meng-Po Fu, Jing-Hua Tseng


In 1962 Taiwan during the White Terror martial law period, Fang Ray Shin, a female student at the hillside Greenwood High School is attending counselling with teacher Mr. Chang, and they gradually fall in love. It was a dangerous period where sensitive books were banned and free speech were restricted, but Mr. Chang secretly organized a study group for banned books, together with fellow teacher Miss Yin and male student Wei Chong Ting.  (Based on the video game of the same name). 


INITIAL REACTION


K.  Detention uses the horror genre to illustrate the terror of fascism and martial law.  After setting up the underground book club and the stakes attached to it, the film plays out in a sort of nightmare: Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng) and Fang (Gingle Wang) are trapped in the school after dark and discover that the underground book club has been sussed out and their friends have been tortured and executed.  A series of flashbacks clarify the action as they try to find the traitor in their midst and stay one step ahead of an authoritarian demon. Based on the video game of the same name, which I’m sure provided a wealth of source material as did the historical setting, this is a really a triumph of horror filmmaking.  It takes a setting that could risk being boring and makes it not only relatable but emotionally relevant.  All across the board from the acting to the visual design, the film is richly textured and has an eerie atmosphere.  The location of a creepy school at night is so simple as to almost be cliche but they make it work and populate it with their own unique monsters. There’s also moments of quiet beauty in Fang’s romance with Mr. Zhang (Meng-Po Fu) and in the bittersweet denouement.  The game was already on my radar as one to check out but I can say I’ll definitely be playing it soon and as far as video game adaptations go, this is a new gold standard of quality and nuance.  Highly recommended for horror fans and just movie fans in general. C. Nowhere else can you find such dread-filled, atmospheric ghost tales as you do within Asian cinema. While there was a time that most would generalize a whole continent’s horror cinema to the Japanese horror boom in the 00s that led to a slew of American (jump-scare-heavy) remakes, what many forget is the original films were deep, philosophical pieces that utilized tension and despair instead of the “gimmicks” which invoke a quick scare to the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great jump scare but there’s so many layers to these movies that get overlooked or lost in translation. Detention deservedly fits right in with the list of effective and haunting ghost stories. I know Kyle will mention the synopsis and probably the fact that it is based off of a video game, so I won’t have you reread the same information. That being said as someone who hasn’t played the game I think this works incredibly well as a movie and not a company cashing in on an adaptation. While Pyramid Head is replaced by some equally terrifying creatures, it has some real Silent Hill vibes revolving around characters stuck in an almost alternate dimension or hellish version of their school, even to the point that they are unable to leave due to the road out being destroyed. The development of the story also contains a goal-oriented structure (get the keys from the Janitor to unlock the room, move onto the next area to get more clues, avoid the creatures, etc.) that can be associated with a video game. While I followed along pretty well I got the sense that there’s certain pieces of the puzzle that will require multiple viewings, which I’m guessing the game provides more explanation to certain elements of ambiguity but it wasn’t anything big enough to take me out of the viewing. There are also a few plot devices that may be cause for commentary from a western audience in the modern era, such as a 14 or 15-year-old (Fang) having an affair with her teacher (Mr. Chang), which isn’t handled as effectively as it probably should be. It gets into that weird area of understanding the time period and cultural context but if you’re making a period piece from a modern lens then you have to acknowledge the issue. Ultimately I don’t have a lot of criticism, this is a masterful piece of horror cinema that fires on all cylinders. From minute one I was hooked, because the movie gets right into it, entering the hellish landscape within the first ten minutes. But even before the supernatural elements come along we are presented with the much scarier threat of fascism. That constant theme throughout is what really elevates Detention from, not only an outstanding eerie paranormal tale but to a substantial work of political horror. J. Beautifully depressed.  That’s the feeling I had when the credits rolled.  That, and if you’re an adolescent, high school aged kid in an Asian film you’re gonna have a really fuckin’ bad day.  This film was pretty amazing to me.  It plays out in this odd, dream-like logic which is the first thing that would never get something like it green lit in America.  The structure is set up like chapters in a book, because book club motherfuckers.  It was creepy as all hell with a magnificent monster that was all CGI but still looked fuckin’ amazing.  Funny thing too, it really tugged at the old heart strings, at least for me, which is saying something because I have to check my own pulse regularly.  I’m not sure I knew what was going on, plot wise, a lot of the time but it didn’t really matter.  The film is gorgeously shot and never boring so you’ll make it whether you understand it or not.

RESPONSE C. This is one we all agree on (unless someone changed their mind) and I am so happy that we got to end with it. There isn’t really anything else I can add besides it has easily been my favorite movie from Fantasia by a mile and is currently onto my “top 10” of the year list. Now comes the constant searching for when it will be available on blu-ray in the States. J. Seriously, see this when it’s available.  K.  This a resounding recommendation on all our parts.  A thoughtful, emotionally centered horror film that uses the genre to deal with complex political issues in a way that isn’t boring or heavy-handed, and based on a video game, no less.  It’s really a triumph of cinematic storytelling. Bloodhound’s average score: 5 out of 5

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