Will the 'Detention' TV Adaptation Address Its Gender Problems?

Will the 'Detention' TV Adaptation Address Its Gender Problems?
What you need to know

The TV adaptation of 'Detention' is not just a sign of success, but an opportunity to address its troubling take on gender.

Note: This article contains spoilers for the plot of the Detention film adaptation.

The recent announcement of a TV adaptation of Detention is a testament to the success of what by now can be called a multimedia franchise. This horror story surrounding an illegal reading group set in a high school during the White Terror — the period from 1949 to 1992 when Taiwan was under authoritarian rule — is a success on multiple levels. But underneath this success lies a troubling take on gender politics.

When Red Candle originally released their video game in 2017, it was a significant event not only because it packaged Taiwanese history and culture in a manner that engaged players globally, regardless of their familiarity with Taiwan. Even more, it was able to do so when Taiwan’s local video game industry has long been dominated by mobile and imported games.

The 2019 adaptation for the silver screen pushed this success further, introducing the White Terror to an even wider audience, especially to younger people who may not know or care about this dark past of Taiwan. Owing to the commercialized style of the film, it went beyond the somber and introspective tone of past movies dealing with the authoritarian period, such as A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang, similarly set in the 1960s and focusing on adolescent students, and Super Citizen Ko by Wan Jen, which also explored the feelings of guilt of White Terror victims.

Photo Credit:返校 Detention

Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the medium, the film had to compress all the game offered into a two hour story, and as a commercial film it also had to omit some of the political aspects of its subject matter. Nevertheless, the film did justice to the visual peculiarities of the video game. As time constraints are less of an issue for a TV show, we can look forward to how the TV series deals with Detention’s story.

However, there is one issue with both game and movie that has not received proper attention, despite being fundamental to the plot: the relationship between the high school student protagonist Fang Ray-shin and her teacher Chang Ming-hui. The problem isn’t simply the relationship of a teacher and an underage girl — something that should not need pointing out as problematic — but rather two consequences of how this relationship plays out in the game.

The first problem is that Detention equates freedom from authoritarianism with free love, thereby ignoring the power inequality between teacher and student. Although the game attempts to address the inappropriateness of the relationship, as Chang’s colleague Yin Tsui-han tells him to not take advantage of Fang’s vulnerability and leave her alone, this is to no avail. Chang, giving in to Yin’s demand, turns a cold shoulder to Fang.

After learning of Yin’s involvement, Fang takes revenge on Yin, reporting the illegal reading group Yin organized to the school’s military instructor. This unwittingly results in the arrest of Chang, who was also involved in the reading group, and his execution. Fang, unable to bear the guilt, eventually commits suicide.

The problem of equating freedom and love is shown at the moment of Chang’s arrest, which in the game is related through a “flashback”: when police come to take Chang away, we see him addressing a farewell to what appears to be Fang’s spirit:

Aren’t people born to live freely?
To think openly, to speak their minds without restriction or fear... Freedom of belief, love and self-realization.
Being with you was a happiness of the simplest and purest kind.
I couldn’t help but think...
When we could be hand in hand, living an untroubled life...
But in the end, this is only a fool’s dream.
I too am vain like the daffodils, fixated on my grandiosity.
The world is not ready for the likes of us.

However, unlike other flashbacks in the game, which are all based on the memories of the player characters Fang and Wei Chung-ting, who was arrested along with Chang, Fang could not have been present to hear Chang’s farewell. This raises the possibility that this scene is of Fang deceiving herself. Yet, Fang’s redemption in the game is grounded in the idea proposed by Chang that it was authoritarianism that stood in the way of Fang and Chang’s love.

This reveals a second and bigger issue: Fang’s downfall is predicated on the breakdown of patriarchal authority. Fang’s problems arise when her parents’ marriage fails after Fang’s mother discovers her husband cheating. Fang’s father is eventually arrested on corruption charges, having been reported by his wife in an act of revenge. Having lost this figure of male authority, Fang finds security in Chang’s embrace, only to lose this again after Yin’s involvement. With no one left to rely on, Fang finally subjects herself to the absolute symbol of authority, the nation. This choice would cost her dearly.

返校全台票房破2.4億 登年度票房第10名
Photo Credit: CNA

On the surface, Fang Ray-shin’s story is a critique of how women are victims of both authoritarianism and patriarchy. However, it is the loss of male authority that lies at the root of Fang’s demise, and the belief in freedom from authoritarianism as the condition for Fang and Chang’s love that redeems her. By failing to criticize the unequal power relations underlying this relationship, Detention ultimately denies female agency and reproduces male authority.

The movie, regrettably, did not address this issue. While Chang does not say the same farewell to Fang, the movie ends with an older Wei Chung-ting, having been released from prison and visiting the now abandoned school, handing an old note written by Chang to the spectral apparition of Fang:

From the white deer to my white daffodil:
Fate holds us apart,
so let us meet again in another life.
To our freedom.

This is the moment of redemption for the film’s Fang Ray-shin, repeating the patriarchal logic of the video game. It’s an open question whether the TV series will address this issue.

READ NEXT: ‘Detention’: A Clichéd Salute to Freedom

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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