Review by Sean Boelman
Video games are notoriously hard to adapt to the comparatively more passive medium of cinema, and John Hsu’s Detention falls victim to a lot of those common problems. However, thanks to some great imagery and plenty of interesting ideas, it manages to be a lot better than most.
The film is set during the Taiwanese white terror and follows a young girl who wakes up in an abandoned school and soon discovers that it is haunted by ghosts, forcing her and a young boy she encounters to find a way to escape. This is a story that is almost entirely dependent on its historical context for its success, as without it, it’s a relatively by-the-numbers haunting tale.
It’s interesting to dissect the script’s themes, because there is a lot going on in the material. In fact, this almost works better as a political thriller than a horror movie, as the commentary on loyalty and betrayal is particularly interesting. There are definitely some moments that are a bit too on-the-nose, often when Hsu tries to make a scare feel more meaningful, but the flashbacks work really well.
Unfortunately, the story is a bit too convoluted for its own good. The film cuts through multiple timelines, and while it is easy to follow when the events are happening, the structure undermines a lot of the emotional impact that a more natural progression would have. Much like how a video game would be built, it feels like the audience is watching the action sequences, then getting a cut scene for backstory, but without that interactivity, this format doesn’t lend itself to a connection.
The movie also tries to juggle a few too many storylines. Of course, there are the historical elements and the horror sequences, but there’s also a coming-of-age storyline and a forbidden romance, neither of which pay off, but never could have worked in the first place. It’s clear where Hsu’s passions and priorities lie, so it would have been nice had he solely focused on those aspects rather than trying to pull off everything in less than an hour and forty-five minutes.
Gingle Wang fits the lead role well, but perhaps due to the fact that most video games (with a few notable exceptions) are more about the visuals than the performances, there isn’t a huge emphasis here on the acting. As a result, everyone in the supporting cast is solid all-around, but no one has much of an opportunity to stand out.
That said, Hsu absolutely delivers on a visual level, bringing some horror imagery that is both disturbing and gorgeous, often at the same time. The production design for the school is impeccable, the labyrinthian corridors feeling like a particularly difficult map in a survival horror game. And the creature design is top-notch, with some surprisingly great CGI, although that is better left unspoiled.
Detention isn’t a perfect film, but compared to most video game adaptations, this one actually feels like it has a soul. A re-write would have helped cut some of the fluff and prioritize the impactful stuff, but it’s still a solid effort as-is.
Detention screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which ran August 20-September 2.