The “White Terror” period in Taiwan’s history, during which thousands were executed by order of the repressive Kuomintang (KMT) authorities, has been little explored in film. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “A City of Sadness” is one exception, and Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day” makes oblique reference to it. But away from the arthouse, depiction of the state’s violent, decades-long suppression of “dissident” activity, has been all but taboo. John Hsu’s “Detention” is designed to address that lack in a populist format: the film is an ambitious, if not entirely successful mix of haunted-house horror, monster movie, love story, historical reckoning and sentimentalized call for the national remembrance of a period many would prefer to forget.
More surprisingly still, this homegrown hit, which won in five categories at the 2019 Golden Horse Awards in Taipei, is based on a videogame, which accounts for many of its strengths but quite a few of its weaknesses too. In the former column there’s a novel approach to narrative, an inventive visual look full of swinging lightbulbs and expressionist nightmare-scapes, and a blurring of the boundaries between real and imaginary that it’s hard to see a more straightforward historical drama embracing. In the latter category, though, there are flaws common to many game-to-film adaptations: The characterizations are thin, the point of view wavers confusingly between the two principals (who apparently can both be “played” in the game), and the movement through the story can feel stifled and deterministic, as though teasing you with the idea of autonomy, when the controller is in someone else’s hands.
Still, to know of its provenance as a game might help the uninitiated navigate a rather confusing opening third. A realistic if romantically shot prologue, drenched in rueful voiceover and Luming Lu’s omnipresent stirring score, introduces us to Wei (Tseng Ching-hua), a good-looking teenager attending Greenwood High School in the early 1960s. He gallantly saves a classmate from the stern attentions of Inspector Bai (Chu Hung-chang) the school’s military superintendent, and later, eyes up his crush Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang) across the assembly ground. Wei is a member of a secret club, held in a disused storeroom in the school, where dissident teachers, led by Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi) and Mr Zhang (Fu Meng-Po) pass around illicit copies of banned literature, such as communist writings and the works of Indian poet Tagore. Bathed in a honeyed nostalgic glow, as this uniformly attractive group of young people passionately discuss poetry, it feels like we are being prepped for a standard historical drama/tragedy.
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But the mood changes suddenly, and rather bewilderingly, as we are plunged into a literal nightmare. Fang and Wei both wake up in a largely deserted, nighttime, netherworld version of the school, in which ghosts prowl the corridors and actual monsters with mirrored faces beneath KMT caps are seen picking off their fellow students. Gradually, the interspersed flashbacks — to the club’s betrayal, and the subsequent arrests, torture and executions, as well as to Fang’s troubled home life and her relationship with Mr Zhang — start to build to a picture of what-actually-happened. And finally, rather cleverly, it’s revealed just who is doing the dreaming of this hellish place, what their real mission is and how it relates to the history of the White Terror and the fog of willful amnesia in which it has been shrouded.
Chou Yi-Hsien’s photography is glossily high-end, and the production design, especially of the nightmare-school as a kind of Taiwanese Manderlay is properly spooky and Gothic. But for all the moments of gore, the film is never truly frightening. Its allegory is blunt, and well, gamer-y, from the way the monster’s face reflects the characters, making them complicit in the KMT’s evil, to the way the victims of the central betrayal come back to haunt Wei and Fang, parceling out information according to a proscribed script, exactly like non-player characters in a videogame. Narratively too, the film is not unproblematic: There’s a whiff of sexism in the treatment of naive, jealous schoolgirl Fang, while the underlying ickiness of the teacher-student love affair goes largely unmentioned.
Nonetheless, the absorbing and entertaining “Detention” works well enough as a primer on a traumatic period of history, and as a story of semi-supernatural salvation for sins past, that it earns its surprisingly moving final moments, and even its heavily on-the-nose exhortation to modern-day Taiwan to remember and honor its ghosts. It’s a soft gracenote to leave us on, yet Chinese authorities regard this not-exactly-revolutionary message as subversive enough to ban the film on the mainland, despite the unequivocal villains, the Kuomintang, being the Chinese Communist Party’s historical adversaries. Maybe that’s appropriate too, as among all the other morals here about remembrance, redemption, national guilt and collective shame, there is a further cautionary conclusion: Just because someone is the enemy of your enemy, doesn’t make them your friend.