A world that treats books as contraband is already nightmarish enough—a world where your education and imagination are curtailed by threats of pain of death on being found with a banned tome in your possession. But add to that being trapped in a realm filled with grotesque apparitions and chilling creatures awaiting you in the dark? Either way, it’s much, much worse than your average detention.
Filmmaker John Hsu conjures this fearsome and fantastical depiction in an adaptation of a popular game developed by Taiwanese studio Red Candle Games (and sharing the same name), Detention (2019). Set in Taiwan under martial law during the 1960s Cold War and White Terror period, military officials patrol Tsuihua Secondary School in search of subversives, students and teachers alike. When the organizer of a secret book club, Professor Zhang (Fu Meng-Po) goes missing, two of the school’s students, Wei Chong-Ting (Tseng Chin-Hua) and Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang) set out to discover his whereabouts after waking up in the school late one night, alone—or so they think.
What follows is a recounting of the past and present in a swirl of jarring visions, fresh memories, and burdensome emotions, as they work to discover the source of the betrayal, the whistleblower behind Professor Zhang’s disappearance. The oppressive regime is visualized in dark detail, transforming the bright school, strict rules, and starched military uniforms into labyrinthine hallways, eroding classrooms, and the ever-encroaching presence of monstrous figures lurking in the periphery. The sense of foreboding and isolation is evoked by the title itself and in the way these characters are detained in a purgatorial liminal space, left to question reality and recognize the double-edged nature of knowledge, both powerful and dangerous.
The more repetitive narrative moments and heavy reliance on CGI are part and parcel in adapting video games to film, especially when it comes to successfully capturing the same atmospheric elements. And while this melding of dark fantasy and horrific history isn’t new territory in horror, this film is certainly in excellent company with the likes of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017). Pain is intrinsically woven into the past, and the path to freedom is not in hiding from that pain, but in confronting it while you still can—often with the guiding hand of supernatural forces.
Score: 7 banned books out of 10.
This film was reviewed as part of our coverage of Fantasia International Film Festival 2020.