Taiwan in 1962 was experiencing the White Terror martial law period. Two high school students awake to find themselves trapped in the abandoned high school. As they try to stay alive, the duo must also figure out how they got there while also trying to escape before it’s too late.
Fantasia International Film Festival continues its run of fantastic foreign films with Taiwan’s Detention. The film is the feature-film debut of director John Hsu and is co-written by Hsu, Shih-Keng Chien (On Children, The Victim), and Lyra Fu (A-Tsuí & Kok-Siông, Close Your Eyes Before It’s Dark). Detention is my favorite kind of foreign horror film because it not only tells a frightening story, but it also reveals a piece of Taiwan’s history that I wasn’t familiar with. The filmmakers waste no time in setting up the tense situation the characters are in. At first, we see the students in their military-like high school, but then the two students wake up alone in the darkened school. They see a number of bizarre and terrifying things as they walk the halls, trying to remember what lead to them being trapped in this situation. Between the gradual reveal of clues and the haunting things these students encounter, the film becomes a suspenseful supernatural thriller that also acts as a metaphor for the horrors of living under martial law.
The mostly young cast of Detention is incredibly talented. Gingle Wang (On Children, The Outsiders) plays the young Fang. We quickly learn that Fang is a quiet, shy girl who mostly follows the rules. Unfortunately, she lets a crush consume her so she can’t see the consequences of her actions. Wang does a fantastic job of showing the duality of Fang’s innocence and how vindictive she can truly be, while still making Fang an overall sympathetic character. Chin-Hua Tseng (The Name Engraved in Your Heart, Workers) plays Wei. Like Fang, Wei also allows a crush to cloud his better judgement, but he cares much more about others and the state of the country he lives in. Wei works with a small group of students who copy banned books, knowing if he is caught, he could be killed. Tseng strikes a perfect balance between Wei’s desire to do good and his young male infatuations.
From start to finish, the team behind Detention took great care to create something with visual interest. At first, the set and the costumes help to tell the story of the time period. The audience quickly picks up on the strict, government-controlled life the students live. It also helps to establish the danger the students are in from real-world factors. When the students wake up in the abandoned school, it is almost like an alternate reality. The school is derelict and contains clues to what happened to the kids in real life. Between the creepy set design and a combination of disturbing practical and CGI effects, Detention transports audiences to another world that mirrors what’s happening in the real world.
Detention creates a stunning metaphor to express the real-life horrors of Taiwan in the 60’s. Hsu, Chien, and Fu weave together a tale that is as frightening as it is heartbreaking. It feels somewhat reminiscent of Sucker Punch, albeit slightly more competent and with more historical relevance. The film boasts great performances from the entire cast, gorgeous visuals, and also teaches audiences a bit of Taiwanese history they likely weren’t aware of. It’s a sad, beautiful film that delivers as many chills as it does heart.
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10