Detention (2019), which is playing at the Fantasia International Film Festival, is an ambitious horror film by director John Hsu, which he has written along with Shih-Keng Chien and Lyra Fu. Set in 1962 Taiwan during the White Terror martial law period, Wei Chong-Ting (Jing-Hua Tseng) is being interrogated for his involvement with illegal books and a club from his school. He and Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang) find themselves back at their school, but something is severely different. They begin searching for answers, and their teacher Mr. Chang (Meng-Po Fu) seems to be at the center of their quest.
The aesthetic of this film is definitely one of the things that immediately works. It looks scary. All the elements of the production design work towards the movie’s mood and tone, and helps to establish the atmosphere that lends to the story. The performances of the film’s young leads, Tseng and Wang, are outstanding. You feel everything they are feeling in every instance of the story. Whether it is fear, heartbreak, longing, or resolve, the two perform exceptionally.
The true fear established in this film is grounded in the rebellion. As a result, the film takes a unique plot structure, weaving together several different timelines as we flashback to key moments that led our characters to be in their current situation. Setting a horror film inside a real moment from history allows for some strong allegorical commentary, which this film does very well. It only helps that the state of the world right now mirrors the plight of the people from 1962 in some big ways. The fear of martial law and the concern at the loss of freedom is embedded in every aspect of this story, making the horror feel more palpable.
I was totally enthralled by Detention. From the design and the actors, this movie worked for me in every way. I love being able to watch a movie that is clearly fictional, yet grounded in history, as I knew very little about this time in Taiwan and am now compelled to do more research. Detention earns the Must See rating.