Asian HorrorReviews

Review: John Hsu’s ‘DETENTION’

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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.

 

The film takes place in the 1960’s at a high school where everyone must be on their best behavior. However, two of the teachers are running a secret book club in the school’s storeroom, featuring books banned by the government. This is quite risky indeed, as not only is it a crime to read such literature, but also to conceal it. Everyone is responsible for reporting any such acts of dissidence or espionage. The punishment is often torture and death.
 

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.

 
Though Detention takes place over half a century ago, it remains relevant today in a number of ways. While the island nation of Taiwan has survived the decades of martial law to become what is now arguably the freest country in Asia, a democracy with its own government and military, and freedom of speech to report and comment on national affairs, mainland China considers Taiwan to be one of its territories. Even now, China is revving up military operations with flybys into Taiwanese waters. It’s a potentially volatile situation with which other nations must tread lightly. The United States, itself, maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” supporting Taiwan’s democracy and willing to defend it, yet not formally recognizing it as an independent nation. This “walking on eggshells” approach to Taiwan extends to Hollywood, where John Cena, promoting The Suicide Squad, was forced to issue a public apology after referring to Taiwan as a country, language which angered China, risking that very lucrative market when it comes to box office dollars.
 
Despite all the ambiguity surrounding Taiwan’s current status around the world, its people fought long and hard to gain the freedoms they now enjoy. That decades-long struggle makes for a perfect subject for a horror film, and Detention does an admirable job of portraying it. One can’t help but sympathize with both the educators and the students, who are simply looking to teach and to learn, and are willing to risk everything, including their lives, to do so. While some characters may take questionable actions, one can see why they might do so under such trying circumstances. High school and college represent that transition period between childhood and adulthood, where one seeks to find out who they are and what their place in the world is. When that period of discovery exists under a constant veil of oppression and persecution, it can take a toll on one’s soul and lead one down a dark and dangerous path.
 
The very fact that this film exists at all is proof of Taiwan’s progress as a nation. That in itself should lend the film an air of hopefulness. As the ever-optimistic Mr. Chang tells his anguished student, Ray, “As long as we’re alive, there are lots of things to look forward to.” It’s a wonderful philosophy to hold onto, especially in a world filled with chaos, strife and uncertainty.
 
Detention is actually based on a popular video game. An eight episode series was created for and is presently running on Netflix. The film is currently available to view on various streaming platforms. Those wishing to further delve into Taiwanese horror cinema can seek out such titles as Shutter (2004), The Heirloom (2005), The Child’s Eye (2010), and Ladda Land (2011). 
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Dentention (2021)

7

Taiwanese psychological / supernatural horror brings the Gothic chills

Brian de Castro
Brian was born in East Orange, NJ, and grew up in Parsippany, NJ. After graduating from Rutgers University, Brian began working at NBC in New York, eventually as a production assistant, and then writer and producer in the promotions department, working on Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Today Show and more. He was honored by The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for contributions to the Emmy Award winning achievement for outstanding writing for a variety, music or comedy program, for Saturday Night Live in 2002 and Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2007.A lifelong Yankees’ fan, Brian pitches and plays third base in an over-35 NJ baseball league, and has played in China, Russia and Italy.Brian’s a staunch environmentalist, wildlife conservationist and gun control advocate, and, of course, loves and lives horror, running his own website, Gore4.com

NYC Horror Film Festival 2021

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