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Detention (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Oooh, this is the good stuff."
5 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Sometimes you know within a couple minutes that a movie is going to be the good stuff, and that's the case with "Detention", which makes its case in striking fashion in the opening and never loses sight of that original target, delivering plenty of scares and style as the film goes on.

The setting is 1962 Taiwan; the country is every bit the dictatorship that Communist China is, with all books containing "leftist thoughts" banned. Nevertheless, there's a "book club" at Greenwood High school that meets in a storage room and not only reads banned books but copies them; it's run by Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) and Mister Zhang (Fu Meng-Po), counting students such as the confident Wei Chong-Ting (Tseng Chin-Hua) and more easily shaken Sheng (Pan Chin-Yu) as members. Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang Ching) is not a part of it, but when the honors student wakes up from having fallen asleep in a classroom, she's alone in the school with Wei - and not only does it seem like something terrible has happened, but all lines of escape and communication have been cut off. And that's before they see that something paranormal might have been responsible.

The opening scenes of Detention are particularly striking for how they set the tone, with pervasive government announcements and militarism, framing the early scenes as propaganda posters, including one shot with the kids entering school where the boys in military outfits enter on one side of the "instructor" meant to keep everybody in line and the girls on the other, their school clothes more like those of the present day but strikingly uniform down to the hairstyle. Even when the screen is meant to be cluttered rather than precisely set out, or when the characters are in a place of presumed safety, authority and control are not that far behind. It's something inescapable that cranks the tension up just a little more as Fang and Wei try to find their way to safety, as well as during the plentiful flashbacks.

There are so many flashbacks in part because Detention is apparently based upon a video game, and characters having holes in their memory is a time-honored tradition in that medium, because how else can you have players discover things that their characters should already know? It nevertheless works fairly well here, in part because it's uneven - Fang is perceiving signs of just how off things are well-before Wei, and it's something that will play into their characters. More than that, there are multiple passes over the past; the first time through is frightening, but has room for idealism and hope, while the second reveals that even the teens' heroes are revealed to have major flaws, adding a lot of tragedy to the horror.

Gingle Wang and Tseng Chin-Hua both handle that pretty well. Tseng in particular does a good job of making Wei able to be perhaps a bit too idealistic whether having secret meetings or confronting supernatural threats without seeming a fool, finally breaking down in pieces toward the end. Wang does a nice job of making Fang freaked in the abandoned school but even more on guard during flashbacks. She plays happiness tragically; the character can't perceive how the one thing that gives her any pleasure is built on a rotten foundation but it's plain to see from the outside. There's something of that quality to Fu Meng-Po's Zhang as well, whie Cecilia Choi plays Miss Yin as a bit frightening, so dedicated a revolutionary that she sometimes overlooks her responsibilities as a teacher.

She's not the only thing scary; Hsu makes the after-hours school a place ruled by frightening dream logic, with pieces often shifting into something else when they're just out of view, or doing so between frames so that the sharp contrast makes an impression. The filmmakers will pull in anything that might work - ghost girls, arms trying to drag people down into a grave, freaky puppets, people turning to reveal massive holes in their head - but in the end will often find themselves going back to soldiers casually shooting hooded civilians in the back of the head as the thing that's really scary. The best monster is kind of a mix of both, a towering and gaunt reaper that represents the state but also has a semi-reflective face, to reflect the victim's complicity in supporting it.

It makes for a thriller packed full of specific meaning that never slows down to remind the viewer how smart it is, and is absolutely able to drop in a few good scares without getting derailed by them. It's a horror movie that knows where its horrors come from and never loses sight of that.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33628&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/26/20 04:54:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Nightstream Virtual Film Festival For more in the 2020 Nightstream Virtual Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  John Hsu

Written by
  Shih-Keng Chien
  Lyra Fu
  John Hsu

Cast
  Gingle Wang
  Meng-Po Fu
  Chin-Hua Tseng
  Cecilia Choi
  Hung Chang Chu



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