Detention - International Film Festival Rotterdam review

★★★★

Directed by #JohnHsu

Starring: #GingleWang #FuKaiLing #ChienShikeng

Film review by Nathanial Eker


Video game adaptations and psychological horror; two categories that are often tricky to get right. It’s a welcome surprise then that Detention, a chilling tale of betrayal based on the game of the same title, is as well executed as it is. Even with zero knowledge of its source material, Detention, with its horrendous historical connotations at times both frightens and sobers. Save for embarrassing clichés and some dodgy CGI, the film is stylish and dominating; a fresh entry in an oversaturated sub-genre.


Fang Ray-Shin and Wei Chung-ting are two high school students in 1962 Taiwan, during The White Terror. Amidst martial law and an atmosphere of mistrust, Wei finds solace in a secret illegal book club, alongside his friends and two teachers. When Fang and Wei mysteriously awake in an upside down esque version of their school, they must face the past and escape their own personal brands of hell.


One must be ruthless when adapting a video game; certain elements that work in an interactive sense don’t translate well to film. Such is the case with the ‘lingered’, huge demons that bark militaristic propaganda and morph the heads of their victims into execution sacks. These lumbering behemoths oppress more than just our leads, as they annihilate the tension, desperate to appear frightening. The unimpressive, wholly synthetic CGI harkens back to a time when the technology was in its infancy, used without thought or logic. Detention is at its worst when it’s channelling the slasher sub-genre, however briefly that might be.


Where Detention excels however, is in its embrace of the psychological part of its category’s namesake. The captivating mise-en-scené groans and creaks with every step our young heroes take. Certain scenes play with lighting in creative ways, and the colour palette starkly shifts to blood red, crafting a distressing setting that channels both insidious iconography and historical subjugation. John Hsu’s stylish direction pays close to attention to detail and indulges in creating disturbing tableaus that remain with the audience long after the credits roll. When paired with a haunting soundtrack of high strings, Detention fully burrows itself under your skin.


It’s unfortunate then, that Hsu clearly lacks confidence in his own command of tension, regularly falling back on outdated clichés for cheap scares. We get flickering lights, heavy breathing, a creature in the closet, blood dripping from the ceiling, and too many irritating jump scares to count. While Detention is far from subtle, when it trusts in its story, believes in its truth, it’s akin to watching a macabre ballet. When it relies on dull genre staples, it’s like watching a zombie twerk.


Of course, lip service must be played to its historical connotations, which (likely a hangover from the reportedly stellar plot of the game) weave organically into the narrative. So well, in fact, that regardless of all the supernatural shenanigans, this simple story of quiet rebellion would make an excellent short film in its own right. The oppressive setting and well rounded, well-acted characters turn the flashbacks into the most engaging part of the story, where they could’ve easily become a monotonous drag. Significantly, the climax builds effectively into something meaningful, powerful, hopeful. Blending historical and paranormal threats, Hsu crafts a compelling tale that never restrains from demonising the atrocities of those orchestrating the Terror, which dwarf any absurd computer generated ‘threat’.


Detention is a modern fairy-tale, a grim foray into a period that stains the progress of humanity. Whilst its plot motivations are at times 2D and its monsters far too 3D, when focused, Hsu crafts masterful tension and delivers a touching examination of the price of freedom. Though riddled by silly clichés and CGI monsters that have no business stomping over such a thoughtful film, Detention remains a satisfying mystery to unfold. With its gripping plot and ghoulish visuals, it’s far from an after-school sentence.



#NathanialEker #IFFR #IFFR2020