“There is hope if you stay alive. Someone has to live to remember how difficult it has been to get freedom.” Luckily, most of us have never had to experience the torment of living under an oppressed government, silencing any semblance of free thinking or rebellion. This type of controlled life is even worse once you combine it to sinister spectres and deformed beings, imposing their will and intimidating tactics. Find out how this all unfolds as “Detention” made its way to Fantasia Festival’s online edition to make its Canadian premiere.
Taiwan, 1962. Martial law is in effect and any books discussing freedom or any other way of thinking than the oppressive manner brought down by the government is punishable by torture and even death. A small group of students discover and read about liberty and poetic literature in an underground book club, hidden in a small stockroom, ran by Mr. Zhang and Miss Yin, teachers who are orchestrating this secret organization. Under close observation by military police, the group vows to never betray each other. When two students, one of them being part of this club, wake up after having fallen asleep within the school, they realize that the building is empty, almost abandoned, and discover that someone has broken the trust of the secret club. Someone, or something, is now after them, as spirits and horrifying creatures begin to roam the empty halls.
Co-writer and first-time feature film director John Hsu does a fantastic job at plunging us into a 60s Taiwanese era of tyranny and secrecy. The tension is palpable as you can practically feel the students’ and staff’s anxiety from being constantly observed and scrutinized by military police enforcing the government’s iron-fisted domination. The outfits, the classrooms, the atmosphere: everything feels like it was set about 60 years ago, in an oppressed nation. Luming Lu’s enchanting score comprised mainly of violins will surely make you feel the melancholy of the atmosphere.
The tale utilizes numerous flashbacks to develop the plot and character motives, which is fine, except it sometimes adds in hallucinogenic fantasies, which might confuse some audience members. Some interesting, creepy characters are introduced in the beginning of the film, one of which has a “Silent Hill-like” aura to it, although it does seem to have a sort of comedic aspect to its rule-enforcing ways. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of them for the majority of the movie. There is definitely a long storytelling lull in the middle frame as we see the genre of “Detention” shift more to drama rather than horror, while the last act seems to drag on unnecessarily.
The actors are very credible at making us feel sympathy for their situation; whether it is the general context of the time or the complexities of more personal relationships. From the lead roles to its most secondary ones, everyone does their part to add genuine emotion and layers of intricacies to the storyline.
“Detention” seems to be somewhat confused in regards to its genre, starting off as a horror film which slowly mutates into a dark, fantastic, and metaphoric drama movie, while still attempting to convince that some of its aspects are horrific. It is a tale based on illegitimate love, broken families, oppression and free thinking. Its horror facet will not overwhelm you, but it will surely keep you interested in its politic-heavy, complex plot, meriting nonetheless a 7/10 score for its beautifully crafted directing and storytelling.
Article written by SIMON ROTHER