DETENTION (2019) Review, Nightstream 2020

Detention Movie Review

Set in 1962 during Taiwan’s White Terror period, two students are trapped at their hillside high school at night. While trying to escape and find their missing teacher, they encounter ghosts and the dark truth of their fate.

When you think of “detention,” you might think of spending 30 minutes after school, quietly doing homework. Within the first five minutes, you realize that is NOT the kind of detention they have in mind here. This school is more of a totalitarian dictatorship, complete with military dress codes, jingoistic propaganda and the constant threat that “espionage” or reading the wrong book could result in nothing less than death. Welcome to Taiwan, 1962.

The source material is a video game, which I confess I am unfamiliar with. However, no knowledge of the game does not seem to be a hindrance. The game is based on a real historical situation, and the film is perfectly coherent and works as an effective horror tale (or possibly ghost story, if you will).

The set design, bland colors and lighting are stifling and oppressive, capturing the constant state of fear and anxiety expertly. As far as mood and atmosphere go, this one has them in spades. Saying the palette is “sumptuous” would be improper for this type of color scheme, but it does offer a visual feast of crushing hopelessness.

While the parallel is not likely intentional, DETENTION compares favorably with Guillermo del Toro’s DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001). The latter has a young boy in a stifling institution living the daily horrors of the Spanish Civil War; the former has a prisonlike school and that same military backdrop. Both have a supernatural element. Heck, one could even draw a line back to SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973) and EVEN THE WIND IS AFRAID (1968), but let’s not go too far down that tangent.

Unlike other films looking for a distributor at Nightstream film festival, this one is backed by nothing less than Warner Brothers. Hopefully this means wide distribution in the future, though that is almost always an uphill battle with foreign films. (Hey, with Covid stopping major film production, it could be a golden opportunity to release more foreign films into theaters – what so you think, Warners?)

A review in Variety was largely positive, but pointed to “a whiff of sexism in the treatment of naive, jealous schoolgirl Fang, while the underlying ickiness of the teacher-student love affair goes largely unmentioned.” The latter point is spot on. Nobody seems to find it unusual and perhaps this is a cultural thing, but teachers involved with high school students is kind of a deal breaker. The former point did not really jump out at me. While I cannot speak to Taiwan, to think girls were generally naive (or intentionally uninformed) in the 1960s compared to today is no stretch.

Ultimately, despite its flaws, DETENTION is a winner and well worth seeking out. Those who caught it on opening night of Nightstream were surely not disappointed.

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