Set in Taiwan during the ‘White Terror’ period of martial law, a high school girl who awakens in an empty school, only to find that her entire community has been abandoned except for one other student. Soon they realize that they have entered a realm filled with vengeful spirits and hungry ghosts.
When it comes to Asian horror, most of the notoriety and acclaim goes to Japan (Ringu, The Grudge, director Takasha Miike), Korea (The Host, The Wailing, Train to Busan, and the recent Netflix smash, Squid Game) and even Hong Kong (A Chinese Ghost Story, Rigor Mortis, Three…Extremes). The independent country of Taiwan (more on that later), however, has lived in the shadow of not only others when it comes to Asian horror, but the ever looming presence of China when it comes to politics, democracy and freedom. Enter the highly charged and chilling supernatural tale, DETENTION. Before we delve into the film, you’ll need a bit of history.
Taiwan, officially, the Republic of China, as opposed to (and plenty of opposition from) mainland China, or the Peoples’ Republic of China, has had a contentious and tortured past. After escaping from over half a century under Japanese rule post-World War II, Taiwan entered an oppressive period of martial law from 1949 until 1987. During this time, known as the White Terror, anyone opposing, or even thought to oppose the ruling Chinese Natonalist Party, or KMT, primarily under leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was imprisoned, tortured or worse. Several thousand were executed. It was a period where education, creativity and free thought were stifled, which finally brings us to the horrors of Detention.
One member of the book club is Wei Chong-ting. He meets another student, a girl named Fang Ray-shin, who has a crush on one of the book club teachers, Mr. Chang, whose optimistic outlook provides her with a respite from her troubled home life The two students, however, soon find themselves within an abandoned dilapidated version of their school, a nightmarish world populated with terrifying ghosts and ghastly demons. Is this some sort of version of hell? And is it any worse than the horrific world they’re actually living in?
John Hsu, who directed and co-wrote the film, does a terrific job of recreating the time period, giving the viewer a real sense of what it was like living under such harsh, demoralizing conditions. He deftly employs the use of flashbacks to peel away layers of mystery within the present. When it comes to the terrifying, otherworldly version of the school in which Ray and Wei must traverse, it truly is the stuff of nightmares, with creepy, eerie set designs creating a hellish world. The cast is wonderful as well – Meng-Po Fu, as the sympathetic, caring Mr. Chang, Jing-Hua Tseng, as the earnest and helpful Wei, and especially, Gingle Wang, as the forlorn and tormented Ray, who only has reason to smile when in the company of her beloved teacher.