The bar for video game to film adaptations may be dreadfully low, but it’s still quite nice to be able to say John Hsu’s Detention is easily one of the better examples.
Based on Red Candle’s excellent 2017 side-scrolling horror game of the same name, Detention delves into a bleak portion of Taiwan’s history to create dread and unease from more than just spirits and monsters.
The events of both game and film take place in 1960s Taiwan during the White Terror Period, where an uprising against the Chinese-led government sparked a massacre of Taiwanese people, and put the country under martial law for 38 years. During this time, around 4000 Taiwanese were executed for perceived opposition to the Chinese National Party, and many more were imprisoned. Detention begins with this context upfront, but takes its time unraveling the true impact of the militaristic brutality that ultimately pulls the strings on a tale of jealousy, betrayal, and tragedy.
Student Fang Ray-shin awakens in her school, and finds the place apparently evacuated for a storm. She meets up with fellow student Wei Chong-ting before discovering they are unable to leave due to the road leading out being devastatingly flooded. Forced to investigate the abandoned school by nothing more than the light of a red candle, the pair soon discover they’re not the only ones roaming the halls.
The opening 15 or so minutes of Detention packs the more traditional horror elements in. Increasingly agitated orchestral strings scream over every spooky instance to an almost ridiculous degree. This occurs frequently as Ray begins to see strange specters and twisted mirrors of herself, and the structure, without much context at this stage of the film, feels a little cheap and messy.
Mercifully, the film course-corrects itself quite quickly after that initial spookhouse ride, and introduces one of its gangly, lantern-carrying, mirror-faced monstrosities. Here the strings take a bit of a breather to allow for a truly tense scene where Ray and Wei hide from it as it raspily utters threats of execution for traitorous behavior to no one in particular.
It becomes clearer than ever that this isn’t the school these students know. Is it purgatory? Is it a manifestation of the building’s sordid history? Detention goes on to explain exactly why and how the pair came to be stuck there, and the connective tissue is the relationship both share with their teacher Chang Ming-Hui.
Through flashbacks, we discover Ray had a romantic relationship with Chang after he’d counseled her during a dark period in her life. That, understandably, was kept distant and quiet until it ended. Wei however, is a member of a secret banned book club run by Chang that is tucked away in the school. The danger of dealing in these books is the death penalty, which naturally terrifies those involved, but their excitement, passion, and hope are enough to negate their fears in the name of art and expression outside the strict structures set by the Chinese National Party. Detention makes no bones about this dicey situation, even in the less blunt jumps back to Ray and Wei’s attempts to escape the haunted school, drawing the supernatural horrors close to the political ones throughout.
While the CG Guardian monsters are positioned as the threat, to begin with, the real beast of the piece is the manipulative Instructor Bai, who gets wind of the secret book club, and twists Ray’s personal history against her to find out who is behind it. The fallout of this authoritarian scheming in the name of patriotism is heartbreaking and cruel, and while Bai barely features, his actions are felt throughout.
As with the game, Detention is a horror-hued spotlight being shone on horrific historical fascism and the longstanding devastation it caused to a country, but it also deals in hope for freedom, and the fight to fix what once was utterly broken. I don’t feel the film manages to utilize the supernatural in telling its story quite like Red Candle’s game does though. In some ways, it’s like Hsu is desperately trying to get the spooky stuff out of the way to tell the more grounded side of the story, and I completely understand why, but in an otherwise remarkably faithful adaptation, the two streams of horror don’t flow into a collective river quite as well as they do in the source material. Despite that, there’s still plenty of strength in how the story is delivered.
What Detention, the film, does do with a bit more confidence and consistency is recreate the side-scrolling look of the game in several key shots and scenes. There’s repeated shots of Ray and Wei presented against a backdrop that instantly evokes the spirit of the game, most effectively utilized during the disturbing scenes in the school hall. Having these nods to the striking visuals of the game, alongside its powerful and heartbreaking story, helps to ensure Detention isn’t too bogged down by its pretty standard use of ghost story tricks.
Given the choice, I’d still recommend the game over this film, but this is more to do with how good the game actually is than a critique of Hsu’s adaptation. Adapting horror games has long been a thankless task because it’s incredibly difficult to capture the feeling of playing and a lot of the plots are ripped from horror movies to begin with, but in the case of Detention, the historical, politically charged story is good enough to transcend its original medium. It’s a little unfortunate then that the supernatural side of it hasn’t been translated quite as successfully.