返校 (Fan Shiao)
Taiwan, 2019, 103’, Mandarin
Directed by: John Hsu
Script: John Hsu, Fu Kai-ling, Chien Shih-keng
Photography (color): Chou Yi-hsien
Editing: Shieh Meng-ju
Production Design: Wang Chih-cheng
Music: Lu Luming
Producers: Lee Lieh, Aileen Li
Cast: Gingle Wang (Fang Ray-shin), Tseng Ching-hua (Wei Zhong-ting), Fu Meng-po (Cheng Ming-hui), Cecilia Choi (Yin Tsui-han), Chu Hung-chang (Mr. Bai), Hsia Ching-ting (Ray-shin’s father), Jessica Chang (Ray-shin’s mother), Liu Shih-min (Gao)
Date of First Release in Territory: September 20th, 2019
Premiere status: Italian Premiere
Horror films tend to attract younger thrill-seeking viewers. On the surface, Detention looks like it would fit perfectly with other films in Taiwanese cinema’s recent horror resurgence, such as the The Tag-Along series and The Rope Curse. However, when I watched Detention in a Taipei cinema, I spotted a couple who seems seemed to be well into their 60s among the audience. Detention is just another horror film for the genre’s target demographic, but for anyone over the age of 60, the White Terror era depicted in the film is a distant, but vividly terrifying memory.
Between 1947 and 1987, the Kuomintang enacted martial law in Taiwan and arrested those suspected of being political dissidents (namely anyone suspected of sympathizing with communism). As one character says in the beginning of the film, it was an era when “talking about freedom is a crime and reading banned books can cost us our lives.” The government has since apologized for the KMT’s actions, and memorials have been built to remember the victims of that era.
Based on an immensely popular computer game, which in turn is a composite of several real incidents from the era, Detention has a setup not unlike a by-the-numbers horror film: The year is 1962. Two teenagers – Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) and Zhong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua) – wake up in their high school in the middle of the night. The power’s been cut, the bridge to the outside has been severed, and spooky things start lurking about in the night.
But before plunging into the story’s scary setting, director John Hsu and his co-writers opt to begin the film with a glimpse of life in the high school, in particular a secret banned book club led by two teachers and the intimidating military instructor who watches over the school. Following the game’s structure, the rest of the film jumps between the fantasy realm, in which Ray-shin and Zhong-ting run away from ghouls and search for clues to explain their predicament, and flashbacks showing the consequences students and teachers suffered when the book club is was discovered by the authorities. The truth, in the end, turns out to be scarier than any monster in the characters’ imagination.
Best known for his 2017 hit VR comedy, Your Spiritual Temple Sucks, Hsu shows an assured grip over the horror side of the story, using a mix of traditional filmmaking craft and special effects to recreate some of the original game’s most suspenseful moments. The horror scenes are effectively chilling and made with a strong directorial vision (despite having only the fraction of the budget of a standard Blumhouse horror film), but the flashback scenes showing the grim atmosphere of distrust and paranoia in real life make up the most emotionally powerful part of the film.
While the White Terror era has been seen in serious films such as Hou Hsiao Hsien’s City of Sadness, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and Yonfan’s Prince of Tears, Detention is the first traditional genre film to tackle the heavy subject. The film does follow many standard horror tropes, but it’s ultimately a sobering history lesson and cautionary tale. It’s a bleak and unnerving tale about guilt and the importance of resilience in the face of relentless oppression, making this an important film in these politically charged times. If it takes a haunted school horror yarn to inspire young audiences to reflect on the difficulties and challenges that Taiwan overcame before it achieved democracy, then so be it.
John Hsu first captured the attention of the entertainment industry when he won Best Director at the Golden Bell Awards in 2005 for his television movie, Real Online. After a series of short films, his 2017 VR short, Your Spiritual Temple Sucks picked up awards around the world and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Hsu is also a co-founder of AFK PL@YERS, the biggest machinima production group in Taiwan. Detention is his first feature film.
2005 – Real Online (TV movie)
2017 – Your Spiritual Temple Sucks (VR short)
2019 – Detention