Video game movies have certainly come a long way over the years. From an unassuming start with Super Mario Bros nearly 30 years ago to something like Sonic the Hedgehog within the last few years, the dramatic uptick in quality for game adaptations has been remarkable to witness. What was once a medium looked at with derision is now finally getting the recognition it deserves from the wider pop-culture population.
Oh, wait… You didn’t realize Detention was a video game adaptation? You’d be forgiven for not realizing that as I didn’t even when I took on this assignment. I saw something that looked relatively interesting in its horror premise and was considered rather successful upon its original release two years ago in most of East Asia. I figured I would give it a watch having recently been on a trend of revisiting mediocre films from my youth.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let me say this: even without knowledge of the game it is based on, Detention is a quality movie that should please those looking for more narrative heft in their horror stories.
Director: John Hsu
Release Date: September 20, 2019 (Taiwan), October 8, 2021 (USA)
There’s a lot to unpack with Detention that a simple plot outline wouldn’t really explain. The general setting is that of a fictional Taiwanese high school set in 1962 during the height of the White Terror era, a period of political instability where the country was put under martial law by the occupying Chinese forces. It’s one of the worst tragedies to befall Taiwan in its modern history and was critical in the formation of the Taiwan Independence Movement.
So, with that background out of the way, Detention concerns itself with the story of Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang) and Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Ching-Hua) during that tumultuous time period. Told in a series of episodic moments, the story is unraveled almost in reverse order as we see a seemingly innocuous incident that is eventually revealed to be the lynchpin of this particular thread.
Wei belongs to a group of students and teachers that are smuggling illegal literature into the school. Since the occupying Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) is heavily against any foreign literature being spread around, there is a palpable tension in the air that any moment might be these students’ last. It’s not even the scariest thing in the film, though.
Fang, on the other hand, is visiting the school counselor, a man named Mr. Chang Ming-Hui (Fu Meng-Po), after some incidents at home cause her mental stress. Having fallen in love with him, she initially doesn’t realize that Mr. Chang is the head of the very group that Wei is involved with. Fang simply sees another teacher, Miss Yin Tsui-Han (Cecilia Choi), as a rival and wants to get her out of the picture.
Writing it out makes things sound simpler than they really are, but Detention doesn’t give up the ghost so easily. With some brief exposition, the film begins properly when Fang wakes up in what appears to be an abandoned version of her school. In a rather excellent shot where the background is rendered in black and white, she encounters a distorted, faceless version of herself before eventually running into Wei. He offers her a helping hand and the real horror rears its ugly head.
When thinking about video games, the closest comparison I can make with Detention is Silent Hill. A survival-horror franchise that is known for being a representation of its protagonists’ psychological trauma, the very setting of Detention is exactly that. It may not be clear at first, but the horrific state of the school and the dingy atmosphere is all a manifestation of Fang’s guilt. Having committed some deplorable act, she is being tortured by the very demons that haunt her thoughts.
Wei, as well, is thrust into this world, not because of his actions, but to test his resolve in learning the truth. Having to relive the death of his colleagues at the hands of some CGI monster, he and Fang are intrinsically linked to this place and time so that they never forget the story of their fallen comrades.
It’s all very politically charged and recalls the struggles that many real-life figures faced in keeping the truth of the White Terror alive. I was honestly super surprised when the credits rolled because I didn’t realize a horror film would be so on-point with its allegories. Sadly, the horror aspect is the biggest issue with the film, as a whole.
I mentioned a CGI monstrosity before, but that creature only appears a few times throughout the film. It’s not long before our protagonists are face to face with it, but it only appears when the plot dictates and doesn’t seem to truly represent anything in general. Its appearance is that of a Chinese general, but then fear of being captured by the military should weigh on these characters more than the film suggests. The monster is more of an inconvenience than a threat, which leaves the plot to do the heavy lifting.
In essence, Detention is kind of a lackluster horror film. There are some squeamish visuals later on towards the conclusion, but most of the movie is dedicated to discovering the truth of Fang’s choices and Wei’s decisions. It’s absolutely interesting and even hides some of its plot holes behind the general concept of being a distorted reality. It’s just a shame that anyone looking for scares is going to leave without them.
There also seems to be some exposition missing between Fang and Mr. Chang that would have helped elaborate some points of the story. I wouldn’t call the character arcs lacking, but more rushed. It’s not like you can’t understand or feel for these characters, but there are a tremendous number of tertiary characters in the film that exist simply as plot devices. Fang’s family, for instance, is pivotal in her despair, but then don’t really show up for more than a few scenes.
In truth, however, you have to be really nitpicky to find a lot of faults with Detention. The acting is all believable, the cinematography is emotional and artful, and even the soundtrack is quite stirring. It has a hell of an ending, as well, that beautifully wraps things up. I just can’t quite shake the feeling that some more development should have gone into the side characters.
I also had a lingering feeling this film would have worked better as a television series. Coincidentally, Netflix commissioned a series adaptation that began streaming late last year. While more a pseudo-sequel to the movie, it draws the story out across eight hour-long episodes that get to the heart of this psychological horror story a little better than the film does. The success of that series is likely why Detention is finally being released in the west this year.
So where does that leave my feelings on the movie? Honestly, I would call it the best video game adaptation hands down. It stumbles in a few areas, but it accurately captures the atmosphere and story of its namesake without feeling dumbed down. Not many compromises were made in bringing this to the silver screen, especially since it’s very evident where the creators got their inspiration from. It’s rare that I would call for a film to be longer, but the relatively short 105-minute run-time feels like it maybe wasn’t adequate enough to properly contain the heft of this tale.
If leaving the film wanting more is the worst thing I can say, then it’s pretty obvious what you should do. Detention is maybe not the best horror movie ever made, but it’s a real delight in a year that doesn’t have much competition when it comes to horror. If you can manage to see it, you won’t be disappointed.