Regret clings onto the soul like a film. It’s difficult to scrub off, forever leaving behind a stain that only we personally can see. If you believe in the concept of sin as well, those too linger onto our souls long after we are dead. What sins do we carry and where do they take us in times of great turmoil? Using the backdrop of the White Terror, director John Hsu takes his adaptation of DETENTION (返校) and explores the time period, the decisions we make that we end up regretting later, and what it means to move on.
John Hsu (徐漢強) makes his directorial debut with DETENTION (返校). The film itself is based on the videogame of the same name from Red Candle Games. It stars Gingle Wang (王淨), Tseng Chin-Hua, Fu Meng-Po, and Cecilia Choi (蔡思韵). The film takes place in 1962, Taiwan. The country is in the middle of a period of Martial Law style rule, typically known historically as the “White Terror”. We are introduced to Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang), a senior high school student, who has fallen in love with Zhang 老师 (Fu Meng-Po). However, Zhang 老师 has a major secret. He has been introducing controversial books banned by the Chinese Nationalist Party. To be caught with those books means immediate death. One day, Zhang 老师 disappears. As he disappears, Fang has found the school that has become a refuge from the real world has turned into something far more sinister. It is then up to her to find out why.
To provide some historical context, DETENTION (返校) takes place during the White Terror (白色恐怖). It was a period of martial law in Taiwan’s history. It quite literally was a terrifying time, where citizens were imprisoned and/or executed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (或也稱為國民黨). Any perceived opposition – real or otherwise – against the Party and its beliefs was grounds for immediate suspicion and detainment. As is demonstrated in the film, because of the fear surrounding any Communist-like beliefs and opposition to the majority party, this easily could be used as a tool to eradicate one’s enemies. This knowledge of how to utilize the system, however, comes at an awful cost for all parties. And, as young Fang (方芮欣) learns, such decisions come with a giant weighted blanket of regret.
It doesn’t take long for DETENTION (返校) to jump feet first into its paranormal, otherworldly story. After providing a brief introduction to the setting, the rug is ripped out from under the audience as we find ourselves with Fang in this alternate reality version of her school. With many notes comparable to Silent Hill, we follow her and – eventually – her classmate Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Chin-Hua) as they attempt to figure out is going on. The truths that are unveiled are emotionally heavy. This is not a film that will spare its audience the trauma of what happened during the White Terror. And, with each truth Fang and Wei uncover, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for these young students.
The acting performances in DETENTION (返校) help really drive those emotional hits home. Gingle Wang (王淨), in particular, delivers a standout performance. The subtleties she infuses into her performance make it all the easier to feel what she is feeling. We feel her pain. We feel her heartbreak. And, ultimately, we feel her guilt and regret upon discovering her part in the disappearance of Zhang 老师. It makes it all the easier for Wang to impact us with her performance due to how director and co-writer John Hsu has her positioned as the eyes and ears of the audience. To me, that was a clear nod to the videogame.
The other cast members also knocked it out of the park. It’s challenging to single out any one of them because they all delivered. Tseng Chin-Hua’s performance as Wei helps serve as a contrast to Gingle Wang’s Fang. While she hides within herself, his optimism and belief in the good the world pushes him through the trials of this film. We want him to succeed all the way. Hung Chang Chu is every bit as terrifying as Officer Bai, the enforcer of the laws dictated by the Chinese Nationalist Party. Fu Meng-Po’s Zhang 老师 is a soothing force. He is both calm yet an authority that helps to enrich the minds of his students. He genuinely cares. That’s what makes his fate all the more heartbreaking.
The only real downside to DETENTION (返校) is its visual effects, more specifically in its creature design. Let me clarify. The effects themselves aren’t bad. They are actually quite good. And, considering the origins of the film, it serves as another nod to the videogame. When we are first introduced to the “big bad” creature, there is a terrifying mystery as we don’t actually get to see the creature. However, part of the monster design felt lacking in terrifying execution once fully unveiled. It did make me wonder whether that impact would have benefited from a fusion of practical effects with CGI. A couple of other supernatural moments felt about the same in terms of lacking that impact due to the execution of melding the CGI in with the real-world elements. It’s a minor note, but it did take me out a bit.
DETENTION (返校) is a film that will remind many of Silent Hill and – even – Pan’s Labyrinth due to the fusion of the Martial Law political setting as well as the usage of supernatural elements. However, those comparisons can’t take into account how emotionally impactful this film is. Even more so when reminded that the White Terror actually happened in history. DETENTION (返校) is a heartbreaking film about regret and the cycles we are doomed to continue walking if we do not learn from our mistakes and move on. Gingle Wang’s performance alone guarantees that you take these lessons away, especially when you hit that final chapter.
DETENTION (返校) had its Canadian premiere at the digital edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival on August 24, 2020.