While students everywhere fear disciplinary action, some punishments are far more grave than being forced to attend detention outside school hours. In 1962, Taiwan was under martial law, and Detention takes us to this time when acting out or reading forbidden materials was punishable by death. This feature debut from Taiwanese director John Hsu is based on the popular video game of the same name — a work of atmospheric horror where the game protagonists unveil the mysteries of their haunted high school when they become trapped inside it.
Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) falls in love with her teacher, Chang Ming-Hui (Fu Meng-po), who leads a banned-book reading group. But it is with fellow student Wei Chong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua) that she spends a long dark night inside the school battling terrifying forces after Chang suddenly disappears. These students risk their lives to read prohibited materials, and the government oppressing their curiosity seems determined to erase all traces of Chang’s existence, yet these two students are determined to find him no matter what other creatures they may find along the way.
Banned in mainland China, Detention depicts the “White Terror” period of Taiwan’s history and calls for a remembrance of national ghosts through its disturbing monster horror. The sepia-tinged scenes in the light of day feel like hazy memories, while dark candlelit scenes of secret reading take on a furtive urgency. The glow of the lighting and cinematography from Chou Yi-Hsien seem to set us up for a lyrical historical drama — if it weren’t for the monstrous creatures that intrude. Abruptly, we are thrown into a waking nightmare as chaos descends upon the school — or at least, what once was the school. Fang and Wei venture into a distorted underworld version of the building, where the corridors are terrorized by massive creatures in military garb threatening to rip their heads off.
Detention simplifies some of the political issues at stake here and also relies on some reductive tropes, like the jealous schoolgirl and the teacher-student affair. Perhaps revealing its video-game roots, the characters are thinly sketched, like two-dimensional avatars that are just there to help propel the chilling plot forward. Yet it still manages to intersperse flashbacks of the arrests, tortures, and executions the rebellious students and teachers faced, which create an entirely different layer of immense horror. When the book group is busted, its members sob at the devastating loss before they start to turn on one another — wondering who ratted them out and who is to blame for the hellish situation they now find themselves in — and as both gruesome creatures and the fearsome Kuomintang pursue them, nowhere is safe.
The message is not subtle, and we do not delve deep into the political and social history, but the film’s aesthetic is spooky and gothic enough to absorb us in its mood; the characters only begin exploring the shadows, and there is always more left to uncover. For once, detention promises a thrilling experience, and you won’t be watching the clock as this movie races through its runtime. This game adaptation may be no fun for the characters forced to face each additional horror, but it offers viewers a supernatural thrill facing off against the most menacing ghosts of history.