“Everyone is responsible,” says the male Voice of Authority over the tannoy at the very beginning of John Hsu’s Detention (Fanxiao), before adding “…for reporting espionage”, and further warning that failing to do so is a crime, that inciting rebellious thoughts will result in punishment, and that subverting the government is punishable by death – all as uniformed students are seen filing into Greenwood High School. It is 1962, right in the middle of Taiwan’s prolonged White Terror martial law period, and this school, with its tightly regimented discipline, its atmosphere of ever-vigilant paranoia and its hidden acts of rebellion (teen or otherwise), is clearly a microcosm of the state.
The film’s prologue introduces fast-thinking, risk-taking Wei Zhong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua). He is a trusted member of a forbidden book club run by teachers Mr Zhang Ming-hui (Fu Meng-po) and Miss Yin Cui-han (Cecilia Choi) in the school’s storeroom, where a small number of students secretly meet, discuss and copy texts banned by the state. Wei also has a wandering eye for troubled fellow pupil Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang). There is then a sudden cut forward to a few days later when Wei is being brutally tortured by the Garrison command and threatened with death if he will not reveal the source of the books. Wei passes out, only to awaken in what he describes in voiceover as his “worst nightmare”, worse than all his physical torments. Accordingly, everything that follows this opening credit sequence, save for a brief coda set decades later, conforms to the conventions of a horror film – a nightmare which allegorises an adolescent nation’s most unspeakable and all-too-real experiences under military rule.
Wei and Fang wake up confused in the school at night, unable to remember how they got there or what has happened, and blocked from exit by flooding waters outside. As they explore this environment whose offices, assembly halls, classrooms and hallways are now (mostly) empty, they will encounter ghosts and monsters, as well as clues to what exactly unfolded over the last few days. “Are we really still in the school?”, Wei will ask of this eerie place, its colours strangely subdued and its decor now aged, faded and covered in signs of mourning and death. For in the minds of these young adults, still not quite able to recognise or accept their own small part in the horrific events that have taken place, the school has transformed into an unreal space of the imagination – a limbo, even a hell, of creepy uncertainty and guilty conscience.
Here the school setting draws on the Whispering Corridors franchise, but the key reference point for the film’s crepuscular, decaying visuals is Christophe Gans’ spooky VG adaptation Silent Hill (2006). Indeed, Detention itself has been adapted from a popular Taiwanese video game from 2017, and its narrative is a series of explorations and discoveries by the two ‘players’, with flashbacks substituting for a game’s ‘cut scenes’. Elegantly mounted and realised, Hsu’s film draws from genre a complex story of love, betrayal and resistance in a time of (real) terror, when the personal and the political could quickly form a toxic mix.
On Wei and Fang’s nightmarish journey through their own and their country’s compromised rites of passage, the school’s despotic Instructor Bai (Chu Hung-chang) is presented as a terrifying, impossibly long-limbed creature with a mirror for his face, so that anyone whom he confronts (and, typically, executes) is forced to see their own reflection in his features. In relating Taiwan’s taboo history, Detention similarly asks that its viewers acknowledge their own place in the history that has made Taiwan what it is today. After all, ‘everyone is responsible’ – and the only way to exorcise the past is to face it head-on, while living to tell of the awful growing pains that would lead a nation to eventual liberty.
© Anton Bitel