What you need to know
“Detention” is a bold attempt to explore a sensitive topic but fails to achieve much beyond scratching the surface with its clichéd plot and didactic screenplay.
“Have you forgotten or are you scared of remembering?” This eerie quote from the recent Taiwanese horror film Detention (返校) has become a catchphrase among the twentysomethings.
For the younger Taiwanese who never lived through an authoritarian era, they might just use the haunting question to mock their forgetful friends. But it alludes to a traumatic history that’s still relevant today.
Adapted from a survival video game of the same title, Detention is the first feature film directed by John Hsu. The film has received widespread attention for its attempt to explore — or exploit — a highly sensitive topic: Taiwan’s martial law period between 1949 and 1987. It was one of the world’s longest martial law periods, during which hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese were jailed or executed for their alleged opposition to the authoritarian government Kuomintang.
Set in the fictional Greenwood High School in 1962, the first segment of the film, “Nightmare,” opens with a female student, Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang), waking up from a nap and finding herself in a ghostly classroom with broken windows and chilling winds. In an act that mimics the original gameplay, Fang lights a red candle that becomes the only light source leading us from one dimly-lit scene to another.
With Lu Lumping’s suspenseful score, we wander with Fang through the spooky hallway while being hyper-aware that a faceless figure is following along. Fang runs into another male student, Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Ching-hua), and together they try to escape the nightmare while discovering what happened to the abandoned school.
The evocative cinematography takes us on a spine-chilling journey with the characters as if we’re playing along in a videogame. Hsu skillfully induces psychological horror with each meticulous detail, from the funeral notices on the wall to an indecipherable phone call urging them to run. As they proceed to each school area, the horror is intertwined with fragments of the characters’ daytime memories. Mystery unravels as we discover that Wei’s underground book club was busted. Phantoms of the students and teachers tell us they have all been killed, and Wei was the only survivor.
But who was the whistleblower?
The brutal reality of Taiwan’s martial law period — in which reading non-political literary works like Tagore’s short poems and Ivan Turgenev’s “Father and Sons” would put one’s life at risk — may be hard for the younger Taiwanese to imagine. They grew up in a democratic society that allows for freedom of speech and expression, but only a few decades earlier, hardline censorship had interfered with the way of life. Communist materials were censored for fear of Chinese infiltration into Taiwan, where the Kuomintang had retreated to and occupied after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party.
To quell dissent and any Communist narrative, the Kuomintang banned foreign writers even if their works were harmless to the regime. Mark Twain, for example, was censored simply because the name “Mark” sounded like “Marxism.” And anyone caught reading or spreading the censored books faced imprisonment or execution.
The teachers and students at Greenwood High School run their bookclub in a secret basement. One of them leads by reciting Tagore’s love poem, “Leaf becomes flower when it loves. The flower becomes fruit when it worships,” and we’re appalled at how the love of reading constituted such a grave crime.
In a subsequent scene, a teacher is dragged out of a classroom by the military police. His resounding scream of “Government murders!” is followed by a harrowing silence, and the rest of the school is forced to continue singing the national anthem.
Everything we see, from the teacher’s desperate outcry, to the students standing, dressed in uniforms and all with ruler-straight haircuts, reflects the horror of an authoritarian era where any human expression deviating from the regime was considered an offense. Imagine the uniformed red cloaks from the screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale — except this was a reality constructed by a government that still stands as an influential political party in Taiwan today.
But the initial mystery built up in the first segment of Detention quickly takes a tacky downturn. In the following segment, named “Whistleblower,” the plot centers on the forbidden love between Fang and her teacher, Mr. Chang Ming-hui (Fu Meng-po), the founder of the underground book club.
We eventually confirm who the whistleblower was after suffering from the second segment’s lackluster story of love and revenge. However, the carefully crafted suspense and plot development are reduced to a petty love affair that fails to evoke sympathy, hence revealing the screenwriter’s lack of creativity and sensibility.
Detention is released during a time of heightened political divide in Taiwan and ongoing civil unrest in Hong Kong, which arguably is the perfect timing for a film that discusses oppression and freedom. But the conclusion of the film grossly disappoints by simply asking the survivor to “remember and live on with hope” — then what?
At the very end, after dragging us through the second half of the film with painstakingly didactic dialogue, Hsu leaves us trembling in the horror of distaste with an even more cringeworthy phrase on the big screen — “To Freedom.”
To utter the word “freedom” without ever going deeper into discussing the oppressor, in this case, the Kuomintang, is to avoid confronting history. Throughout the film, Kuomintang is never once mentioned directly but only represented by a gigantic monster who chases after the characters.
We can perhaps draw from hints that it’s the authoritarian regime that killed the freedom-loving people. But why should we treat the oppressor like it’s the one who shall not be named if the entire film is dedicated to celebrating freedom?
By setting the film in an authoritarian era and portraying victims of various degrees without truly acknowledging the real murderer, Detention borders on exploiting a collective pain for commercial success.
During the sluggish segment of the film, the only saving grace is a brief scene where Fang is seen turning up the volume of her radio and screaming out loud against her window — yet we cannot hear her voice. The deliberate silence is perhaps the most telling scene of all, attesting to an era without voice.
Although the producer Lee Lieh has once said Detention should not be overly politicized because it’s only about humanity, her comment is scrutinized given what’s going on in reality. Amid Beijing’s encroachment on Taiwan and its suppression of the Hong Kong protests, a film that reminds us of the value of democracy is guaranteed to provoke political thoughts. If Taiwan ever falls under Beijing’s authoritarian rule, Detention will not just be a story based on a historical event, but rather a chilling prediction.
Due to its sensitivity, the film is already banned in China. Potential profit from the sizable Chinese box office serves as another reason for film producers to self-censor. Thus, it’s a bold effort for Detention to explore a taboo topic. Yet it’s also a waste attempt since it fails to seize such a rare opportunity to provoke more serious and thoughtful discussions.
Despite its gimmicky approach and flaws, the film has earned massive domestic box office success and 12 nominations for the Golden Horse Awards. But in the end, what has it really achieved if all we take away is a catchphrase to mock our friends with?
TNL Editor: Lea Yang (@thenewslensintl)
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