The new film “Detention” is based on a Taiwanese video game by Red candle that is forbidden in China. The film, not to be confused with the latest Netflix series, will start virtually this Friday at Digital gym cinema.
I’m not a gamer, so I’ve never heard of the 2017 Taiwanese game Detention and had no idea that video games could be so political. The film version of the game uses the tropes of horror in a similar way to Jordan Peele in “Get Out” and “Us” to provide social and political commentary.
Here is the background story that will be helpful if you are unfamiliar with Taiwanese history or politics. This particular chapter of the story isn’t covered often in films, not even Taiwanese, as there seems to be some kind of deliberate amnesia.
The story takes place in Taiwan in the 1960s. This is the height of what has been termed as White terror when the Chiang Kai-shek Chinese Nationalist Party declared the country martial law. The martial law era, one of the longest in history, was in effect from 1949 to 1987, with fear lingering for years after that. Tens of thousands were arrested and thousands killed by the then repressive government. It is a time of extreme repression and all ideas deemed dissident are banned and the guilty are tortured or executed. The story is about two teachers who decide to start an underground literature club where students can read banned books and copy them into notebooks. It is a group of children who risk their lives to read poetry and dream of freedom.
Borrowing from the video game, director John Hsu uses a populist format – the horror film genre – to address serious questions about national guilt, remembering the past, and dealing with the horrors of repressive regimes in hopes of avoiding them in Future.
The film mixes elements of monsters and haunted house horrors with a political thriller to captivate the audience. There are some strange narrative shifts and tonal shifts, but if you hold out to the end it all makes sense and is actually pretty clever. The narrative perspective changes as the story progresses and we discover who actually has the “nightmare” at the center of the film.
The political reality of a repressive regime turns out to be most terrible. It’s not just the physical torture they use, but the way they use fear to control people and encourage compliance. There are really terrifying and disturbing scenes that reflect the consequences of a person providing information to the government.
The film and video game are banned in China.