Asian cinema has virtually revolutionized the horror genre as we know it. Starting with the Ringu franchise in the late 90s, many horror films from Japan, South Korea, and China have become enshrined as modern classics.
John Hsu’s Detention is one such film to emerge from this subgenre – and an ambitious one at that. Based on the popular 2D side scroller by Red Candle Games, Detention takes a serious risk when it comes to adapting a video game. Watching a movie and playing a video game are two different experiences, and John Hsu’s film attempts to blur both together. The results are mixed, though the watch is anything but dull.
Detention begins in 1962 at the height of martial law in Taiwan. The military police are everywhere, and the slightest dissent is answered with execution. At Greenwood High School, Ray (Gingle Wang) and Wei (Tseng Ching-hua) find themselves trapped during a typhoon. They are the only living beings on grounds, but they soon realize they aren’t alone. As the number of supernatural entities appears within the school, both must struggle to stay alive while coming to terms with the circumstances that brought them there.
Hsu’s film is based on a Taiwanese horror adventure game released in 2017. Unlike most video game adaptations, which often borrow characters or story elements to weave into original plots, Detention attempts to follow the game to the letter. Anyone familiar with the game will recognize the main characters – namely Ray – and the obstacles they come across in their journeys. Hsu takes a few liberties to flush out a story, but anyone familiar with the game will likely appreciate how faithful Hsu tries to be to the material.
Detention – whether as a film or game – doesn’t come replete with jumpscares or gore, which is a plus. Both utilize a foreboding atmosphere while throwing in sinister figures to give the main characters chase at times. Both also incorporate surrealistic elements (a body hanging from the ceiling, which promptly disappears into the character’s mind, etc.), which adds to the dread that creeps upon the characters and the viewer.
Unfortunately, the film format was bound to have issues, and a few hit hard.
One key theme of Detention is how actions lead to consequences, and Ray’s story is somewhat of a cautionary tale in this light. Ray is a pupil in a Taiwanese high school under tight military control, but upon developing feelings for an instructor, she’s forced to make compromises that could end with the arrest of her and her loved ones. Such a past is integral to the story, but it becomes problematic in the final cut. While the nightmarish school is the main thread, Hsu’s film frequently jumps from the present to the past for context. This helps in places, but the continual switch from a lively past to a dreary present becomes disorienting for the viewer.
Which leads to, sadly, the biggest problem of the film – the setting.
The world of 1962 Taiwan was one of paranoia and intrigue. The fear that gripped a nation is very present in this film, and those who are not familiar with it will be easily drawn in. Unfortunately, the horror aspects – which work perfectly well in the game – become the biggest distraction in this film. Viewers will easily become engrossed in the portions of life under Taiwanese military rule, but the primary setting – the school – takes them into an entirely different film. While those familiar with the game will understand, newcomers will be left putting several puzzles together.
In this light, it is better to play the video game before seeing the movie. Hsu took what he could from the game and worked with it pretty well, but it’s safe to say the game could get away with things that Hsu couldn’t in terms of story-telling. While Detention doesn’t quite reach the mark as a revolutionary horror movie, it at least deserves some respect for what it tries to accomplish.
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Detention comes with good characters and a decent story about an overlooked period in history, but it might fall flat to viewers with no knowledge of the setting or the video game.
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