School should be a place of sanctuary. A safe haven from whatever you leave behind in the morning and waits for you when you come back. What if, it is your country that you seek shelter from? What if you school harbours nightmares?
John Hsu’s Detention, based on the video game of the same name, is a psychological supernatural horror set in 1962 Taiwan, during the White Terror period. Martial law has been imposed across the land, the streets are no longer safe to walk as the government cracks down on anything resembling freedom of thought, and the schools are no better. Before we even get into the spookiness of the school everything about this tale is a nightmare.
Our story follows Fang (Gingle Wang) and Wei (Tseng Ching-hua) as they become trapped on school grounds late at night. The two have much to be afraid of but most importantly they are afraid of the repercussions they may face if they are caught as members of a secret study group for banned books. The teacher that headed up the group has gone missing without explanation and Fang and Wei seem to be the only two who remember him. They banned together to stay safe for the night and to figure out what happened to their beloved teacher. However, as the night carries on their school becomes home to ghosts and demons that force them to confront a terrible truth.
From the onset Detention is an immaculate example of setting the stage. We are immediately thrust into a sense of unease and tension as our leads navigate a life under a restrictive government and harsh personal lives. On top of that, they risk their safety for books, a noble pursuit in theory but a foolish one if you intend to live long. What would feel like a break neck speed in other films, Hsu eases us through the first 30 minutes that quickly transitions from a drama to a supernatural horror. It’s seamless and instant. If one isn’t paying attention there is potential of getting lost in the shuffle, however, things become clearer as the nightmare grow stronger.
The film is anchored by two incredible performances from Gingle Wang and Tseng Ching-hua, who have perfected the “I’m scared beyond reason” face that truly hits. As Wang has these bright yet sad eyes that have us empathise with her to such a degree that when she is scared, we really feel it. However, one down side to her role is that she is embroiled in a student-teacher romance that is truly unneeded and doesn’t add anything particularly worthwhile to the story, other than ickiness.
Paired with our leads stellar performances is an all around exceptional team of creatives and crew that amplify each moment with such intensity and emotions that help ease each transition from drama to mystery to supernatural horror without ever missing a beat. Staring from the top with John Hsu’s directing to Luming Lu’s exceptional score to Yi-Hsein Chou’s tense cinematography, to Chih-cheng Wang’s disturbing production design, every level of this feature is dripping with intensity that adds to the atmosphere.
Detention is not an overly terrifying horror, rather a deeply chilling and intense experience. It gives you the chills, thrills, gasps, and cries that any good horror should.
Detention enjoyed its Canadian premiere at the virtual edition of Fantasia Film Festival 2020 on August 24th
by Ferdosa Abdi