NYAFF 2020: DETENTION is a Supercharged Political Supernatural Thriller

Detention, which is screening as part of NYAFF, and also just made a showing at Fantasia International Film Festival, started its life oddly enough as Tawainese 2D side scroller. Set in the 1960s, during the “White Terror”, this was a period of martial law in Taiwan that lasted for 38 years where 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, and about 4,000 were executed for either their real or perceived opposition to the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Chinese Nationalist Party. Like most regimes they targeted the social elite or intellectuals which plays heavily into the game and film’s setting of a school, a decade into this period.

In the opening moments of Detention Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) awakens alone in an abandoned and dilapidated version of her high school during the night, think an “Upside Down” version from Stranger Things — inhabited by grotesque monsters. She’s confused and missing the memories of just how she ended up back at school at night. She soon encounters a classmate Chong-ting (Jing-Hua Tseng) who had a crush on her in happier times, as she searches for her missing teacher Chang Ming-Hui, whom she thinks might hold the answer. Through flashbacks we soon discover Chang led an underground study club, allowing his students access to banned books, which was a crime punishable by death. As the film progresses it’s revealed the group was reported to the authorities as Fang and Chong-ting try to piece together who gave up the man who was a friend to both.

The narrative here flips back and forth from past to present as the pieces are slowly moved into place and the truth becomes visible. When our protagonists aren’t running from the monsters that roam the school at night, they are dodging the political ones during the day. I found the political aspects here just as fascinating as the horror bits of the film, since both are two sides of the very same coin and the metaphor, while a bit on the nose, works. There is also a different, but equally effective flavor of paranoia that fills the screen on both sides of the coin. This is because as we dig into the mystery of the missing teacher it’s revealed students and teachers alike were rewarded and encouraged to turn in those they believed were against the KMT.

While some maybe content with a simple comparison to Silent Hill, Detention is a much more nuanced story that isn’t simply content being just a creepy supernatural horror tale as its digs into some very frightening bits of Taiwanese history. While the budgetary restrictions show on some of the CGI work, I can’t blame the director for swinging for the fences when trying to adapt some of the great creature designs from the game. The cast here also work to even out these rough edges while also adding a very human layer to the story that really draws in those who were simply looking for some good scares. Detention is reminiscent of an old school dark ride as you’re slowly pulled through the narrative the scares and stakes are raised higher and higher till the tragedy is finally laid bare. Just be warned this one manages to hit particularly hard.

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