A while back I made a post about some Taiwanese movies worth seeing. The movies on that list were either good movies made by Taiwanese directors, or movies that give interesting insight into Taiwanese history and culture. Recently I saw another movie that would fit very well onto that list, Detention (返校 in Chinese).
The movie is based on the 2017 video game with the same name. Considering that most video game movies are mediocre at best, you might think that’s a bad sign…but you’d be wrong. The game itself is more of an interactive story than a normal game and it has some very stylish visuals so it translates well to the movie format. The game is known to be scary and the movie is just as frightful, so if you dislike horror, stay away from this one.
The movie is set in 1962, during the period of Taiwan’s history known as the White Terror. During this time, people in Taiwan were forced to be loyal to the ruling KMT party. Anyone caught supporting communism, trying to oppose the government or even reading certain books could be severely punished. Basically your typical Fascist police state where people spy on each other and denounce people they dislike to the authorities.
The film takes place in a high school where a small group of students and teachers have a book club for reading banned books. Eventually the students get caught and from here the movie transitions into horror territory as the students are flung into a kind of alternative nightmare world. As they try to escape the nightmare, the story unravels slowly and the details of who denounced them and why is revealed. I don’t want to spoil the movie too much so I wont say any more about the actual story.
Some of the concepts are very creative, at least from a western perspective (I believe they are rooted in Buddhist beliefs), and just like the game the visuals are very stylish. The film makers do a good job of building up a creepy atmosphere and there are plenty of extremely tense or downright scary moments without over-reliance on jump-scares. As the story progresses, more and more of it takes place in the real world and the horror elements become fewer and fewer. Just like the makers of the game, the film makers are more skilled at making horror than drama, so this part is a little less exciting than the first half. Not to say that the second half is bad, just not as good as the beginning.
What I think is really interesting about this film is the use of the nightmare world to represent the horrors that people accused of treason had to suffer under KMT rule. It heightens the sense of fear in a way that would be hard to achieve otherwise, and it makes the film feal unique compared to other similar stories. That the horror elements are very well made of course add a lot here.
Overall I think it’s a good film, it would have been great if it stuck to the horror elements but the somewhat less exciting second half drag it down a little bit. For those who don’t know much about the White Terror, I think this gives some insight, perhaps not into the facts, but into the way it felt to be alive at that time. If you’re not too afraid I can definitely recommend you see Detention.