Fantasia Review: Detention
At its best, Detention is reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution or Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, weaving espionage, romance, and betrayal into a historically-based story of fascism and oppression. Set in 1962 during Taiwan’s White Terror, director John Hsu follows a group of teenage students whose desires for resistance bump up against their maturity and ability to fully comprehend the horrors taking place; however, as the film is adapted from a video game, there is also a supernatural element at play, taking place in a deserted simulacrum of the students’ school, filled with ghosts and monsters.
Successful video game adaptations are few and far between, and unfortunately Detention only makes it halfway towards breaking the mold. The portions set in the real world are the ones that really work, imbued with a melancholy and fatalistic air that makes the inevitable fate of our characters cut that much deeper. The haunted school sections, on the other hand, simply can’t shake the video-gaminess that feels pulled from a completely different movie — though there’s something to be said for Hsu’s grasp of visual style, incredibly shaky CGI disrupts the palette and generic chase sequences and jump scares (along with a somewhat derivative score) drag down the mood.
The film isn’t helped by how frequently it switches between timelines, especially when one half of the movie is so much more engaging than the other — it’s a disappointment every time you find yourself returned to the spectre-filled building. But if you can get past the unbalanced bifurcation, the ideas Detention presents are thoughtful and resonant, examining the ways in which governments so easily prey upon and manipulate their youth. The contrast it sets up between the two leads — one a young man committed to the resistance, the other a young woman struggling to lead a normal life despite the impossibility of doing so — exemplifies the ways in which children are forced to mature beyond their years even when they may not be mentally or emotionally capable of doing so; despite some questionable gender stereotyping at work, Hsu manages to capture the spirit of his characters with aplomb.
But what Detention really leaves the audience with is a message about the importance of remembering atrocities, despite how painful those memories may be: history may be predisposed to repeating itself, but if knowledge of the past is lost to time, we stand no chance of breaking that cycle.