Director – John Hsu – 2019 – Taiwan – 12A – 103m
Two Taiwanese students find themselves trapped in their school overnight under that country’s White Terror regime in 1962 – on Shudder (US, Canada) from Monday, February 21st
This is a real oddity: an adaptation of a video game set in a specific historic period of political turmoil. That period is Taiwan’s White Terror (1949-87) under which, among other things, numerous books were banned by the ruling Kuomintang party on the grounds of promoting left-wing or Communist ideas. Merely reading some of these books could provide grounds for execution.
Like the video game, the film is set in the Greenwood High School. It’s 1962 and boy and girl students Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) and Wei Chong-ting (Tseng Jing-Hua) find themselves trapped overnight in the school building after flood waters destroy the access road to the school. What follows isn’t particularly linear in terms of its narrative as school corridors, walkways, rooms and halls are visited by various supernatural beings and become scenes of terror, torture and execution.
The elliptical and sometimes repetitive nature of the storytelling and its component images mean that the film isn’t always that easy to follow, at least not to Western audiences familiar with mainstream Hollywood narrative. Look beyond the superficial confusion, however, and there’s a lot going on here. Much of the plot relates to an underground book club run by teacher Chang Ming-Hui (Fu Meng-Po), coincidentally tasked with giving Fang counselling, during which she falls for him.
Unaware that fellow teacher Miss Yin Tsui-han (Cecilia Choi) runs the book club with Chang, the lovestruck Fang mistakes his association with Miss Yin for romantic attachment. Fang attempts to get rid of the woman she sees as her rival in love by handing a banned book to the authorities, but her plan goes disastrously wrong when Chang too is caught up in the official reprisals.
Heavily laden with special effects, the film is awash with grotesque and highly emotive imagery of hangings, torture and more. A packed audience with their heads covered by hoods watch officially sanctioned hangings in the main hall. Strange, ghostly or monstrous figures appear in corridors – a silently walking schoolgirl the surface of whose featureless face seems to constantly drip from the front of her hairline to the bottom of her chin, a towering official or teacher whose half melted face has been replaced by a reflective metallic surface. If the story isn’t particularly clear, the general gist certainly is: a picture of life under a terrifying, repressive regime where the exact reasons for punishing individuals often prove to be opaque.
Detention is on Shudder (US, Canada) from Monday, February 21st.
London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) (December)