If it’s atmospheric, trippy and brilliant horror that you’re after then look no further than Fantasia Film Festival 2020s Detention. It’s a mixture of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill, set in 1962 during Taiwan’s White Terror at an ill-fated middle-school.
Through the medium of horror, John Hsu brings us a chilling take on Taiwan’s historical white terror, during which thousands of people were executed under the regime of the oppressive Kuomintang (KMT) authorities, an already fairly horrific event without the addition of horror fantasy elements.
Detention, then, acts as a memory of that troubling time, something that becomes a major theme of the movie itself. We’re introduced to a secret book club consisting of two teachers and a handful of students eager to consume art and literature that has been banned by the regime, an act punishable by death. The implication is obviously that a film like Detention that puts a strong lens on the White Terror would in and of itself have been an act of rebellion and punishable by death.
But, in addition to this, Detention is actually an adaption of a video game of the same name, a side-scroller no less. In the game students Wei and Fang find themselves trapped in a transformed nightmare version of their school, Greenwood High School, where they are stalked by monstrous creatures as they attempt to find a way out and slowly discover each other’s dark secrets.
That’s essentially the plot of the film too, as we’re shown Wei (Tseng Ching-hua) and Fang (Gingle Wang) going about their separate lives at the school, all while the aforementioned book club, which Wei is a member of, is operating in secret, even when another teacher is caught for breaking the rules and taken away. But then we discover that the book club is also caught and we see Wei thrown into jail.
We then see Fang wake up alone in an empty classroom and the once populated Greenwood, shot in the daylight and full of students is now an ominously dark, fog-filled and atmospheric place of horror full of long dimly lit corridors. By the time Fang bumps into Wei she’s already been haunted by a ghostly version of herself and images of a cult-like execution in the school’s main hall. In short, Detention is creepy as hell from this point on.
But then the film goes into full, unadulterated horror with the introduction of a hulking, long-legged, jangly, lantern carrying, mirror faced, demon-monster that enforces the rules of KMT. This thing is reminiscent of Pyramid-Head from Silent Hill, but arguably more horrific thanks to its unstoppable authoritarian enforcement leading to the rather graphic deaths of some other unfortunate souls that Wei and Fang encounter.
The films looks incredible, from the CGI of the monsters and ghosts, to the sparsely used lighting and the strangely gothic school setting, particularly in the shift from real-life daytime school to metaphysical night-time netherworld. Even the weather is used to great effect in providing mise-en-scene with daylight only appearing at the beginning and the end of the film. The daylight accompanied with hopeful and romantic piano scores while the night-time is scored with creaking, crunching, pained screams and ominous tones. You can’t get much better in terms of horror aesthetics and atmosphere
We then follow the pair of protagonists as they explore the shadowy school and the further they get to understanding what is happening to them the further the narrative surrounding what happened to that book club in unravelled, and there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. We learn through interspersed flashbacks that Wei has a crush on Fang and risks a lot to do something he shouldn’t for her, and that Fang has ties to the book club too, as she has fallen in love with one of the teachers who ran it, Mr Zhang (Fu Meng-Po). The implications of both of these things aren’t immediately obvious, until the film slowly peels away more layers and the real-life horrors are fully revealed, with betrayals, torture and executions.
At this point we understand that Detention is somewhat of a tragedy born out of a love story and that the characters are, in fact, trapped in some sort of personal hell/limbo. We realise who is doing the dreaming of this place and the film’s title, detention, in which you stay after school to complete further tasks is realised in a ghostly way. One of the two leads is in a figurative detention and must atone for their actions by saving the other. This reveal is very cleverly drawn out between the flashbacks and the real-time scenes.
And this idea of a real-world and a mirror-nightmare-world is something that Detention fully leans into. There are several shots of characters looking into mirrors, reflections in glass and copies of people as ghosts. This again, really drives home the theme that these characters have dark secrets and are being duplicitous in that they’re not as innocent as they might originally seem.
Tseng Ching-hua and Gingle Wang are superb as the tormented duo at the centre of Detention’s tragic story, terrified but practical and brave, unlikely heroes and supportive allies. However, the standout performance for me was Fu Meng-Po’s tender, light and gentle performance as the thoughtful, rebellious and kind Mr Zhang, who is an unexpected driving force of the heart of the film.
Despite all of this darkness and tragedy, all of this guilt and horror, Detention manages to end on a surprisingly hopeful note, in stark contrast to what preceded it. As I mentioned the action shifts from night-time to day-light, the score shifts from horror to romantic piano notes and the message of remembering the horrors of the past and atoning for your sins of the past is driven home with a moving final shot that really works.
Detention is a harrowing ordeal, not specifically scary for its horror elements, which are more grotesque and spine-chilling, but for its reminder that humanity is capable of committing worse atrocities than any horror film can dream up. However its underlying message of art as rebellion and hope as long there’s one person left to remember resonated fully with me, what a darkly beautiful film.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here