By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Gingle Wang, Fu Meng-po and Tseng Jing-hua
Directed by John Hsu
Written by John Hsu, Fu Kai-ling and Chien Shih-keng
Warner Bros. (Taiwan)
Movies based on video games are rarely as ambitious in their themes and storytelling as DETENTION, a Taiwanese frightfest making the North American festival rounds (including the current Nightstream). Indeed, if you didn’t know going in that the movie is based on the Red Candle Games hit, you might suspect it had a literary source, given the political trappings and emphasis on rebellion via reading.
DETENTION is set in Taiwan in 1962, in the midst of the 40-year White Tiger period of martial law, during which those suspected of opposing the Chinese Nationalist party were persecuted, and reading books even perceived as being left-wing was punishable by death. At the incongruously named Greenwood High School, a small group of students has begun a secret book club in reaction to the oppressive government regime running the place with iron hands. They have the tacit approval and encouragement of teachers Zhang Ming-hui (Fu Meng-po) and Yin Cui-han (Cecilia Choi), though the risk the instructors themselves are running is made clear when one of their colleagues, Mr. Huang (Wang Ko-yuan), is dragged from his office, beaten and taken away in a hood during a flag ceremony. As if this wasn’t worrisome enough, the paranormal has begun creeping into Greenwood, and one of the club, Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang), first experiences it via brief and vividly scary visions in an auditorium.
With its shifts in time and points of view, the first half hour of DETENTION can be a little hard to follow on a narrative level, though it gets its points across forcefully and the milieu is persuasively established by director John Hsu, working from a script he wrote with Fu Kai-ling and Chien Shih-keng. We fully understand who the players are and what’s at stake for them before the Greenwood campus transforms into a dark, otherworldly environment, and one of the club is killed by a spindly creature in military dress. It’s a powerfully frightening encounter, and signals DETENTION’s plunge into full nightmare territory…before Hsu and his writers take us back in time again, to reveal more about Fang, her relationship with Zhang and her specific personal reasons to oppose the authorities.
Fang also has an admirer in fellow student and book club member Wei Zhong-ting (Tseng Jing-hua), but DETENTION’s creators don’t go for anything as simplistic as a love triangle. They weave a complex web of fraught interpersonal connections among the young people secretly striving for any kind of freedom, and the two teachers attempting to serve both their masters and their moralities, in an environment that only engenders suspicion and potential danger. Although the storytelling is freeform as it alternates between the threatening real world and the occult playground Greenwood becomes, Hsu maintains tight control on his themes and the way he expresses them in a genre context. Production designer Wang Chih-cheng’s fully detailed and authentic school environments and hellish chambers flow together beautifully as captured by Chou Yi-hsien’s dread-suffused cinematography, backed by Luming Lu’s lushly dramatic music. Audio designers Dennis Tsao and Book Chien, visual effects supervisor Tomi Kuo and the makeup effects creators of ZFX Studio also deserve kudos for their skin-crawling array of grotesque sights and sounds.
Unlike many supernatural screen blowouts, DETENTION never throws in random ghouls or gore for effect; its increasingly horrific hallucinations are always tied to what’s going on with its characters, most notably a betrayal among their ranks. And the fact that this is ultimately a human story first and a horror story second in no way diminishes its impact in the latter area. It’s a supremely confident feature directorial debut for Hsu, who has won awards and nominations for his previous TV and short-film work; don’t be surprised if he graduates to becoming a major presence on the international cinema scene very soon.