When you think of a movie based on a video game, do pleasant thoughts come to mind? Despite some genuinely great films based on video games (Silent Hill’s 32% on Rotten Tomatoes is a homophobic microaggression; Silent Hill: Revelation’s 6% is…justified), most people associate video game movies to be big-budget, high-camp, poorly-directed cash-grabs with little regard for their respective source material. They’re not entirely wrong, video game movies do carry a certain air about them, and their track records have been more miss than hit (thanks, Uwe Boll), but as video games change, so do the inevitable films made based upon them. John Hsu’s Detention (返校), on the surface, resembles nothing of a typical video game movie, but the game it’s based upon also doesn’t resemble what is typically considered to be a traditional survival horror video game. With the door open for more voices to be heard in both video games and film, the chances for the crossing of the two mediums being a bit more synchronous increase, a feat which this film successfully achieves.
Set during the White Terror in 1962 Taiwan, where martial law punished political dissidents to the Taiwanese government and censored left-wing and communist materials from distribution within the country, a group of students participate in an underground book club of banned materials, led by two teachers at the school, meeting only in secret. When one of the students, heartbroken from a failed relationship with her teacher, tells on the underground book club, she must wrestle with the ghostly specters of her peers, tortured and killed at the hands of an authoritarian government.
Detention sounds like a lot on the surface, because it absolutely is. A bit of historical context is certainly needed for those unfamiliar with post-WWII Taiwanese politics (something I assume its main East Asian audience would probably know very well), and there are more distinct character connections in this than a CW teen drama heading into its 12th season when it should’ve been canceled after six, but that gives way to an immense emotional depth that I really did not expect this film to have. Much of the film relies on balancing the supernatural terror at hand, with the real, present danger in the real world with the tense political state. It leaves the film without a safe space to retreat into, leaving the audience uneasy for the entirety of the film.
Full disclosure: I have not played the video game that this is based on, though I absolutely want to now. This being said, while the film carries itself in a much more measured manner than most balls-to-the-wall video game adaptations, there still is a very clear influence from survival horror gaming that keeps the film feeling particularly immersive in its spooky segments as you feel a bit more physically connected to a character’s stressful escape from a malevolent spirit. All leading to the surprisingly funny, but also relief-inducing moment of reaching what feels exactly like a safe room where nothing can hurt you. It’s an interesting sensation watching a film that feels so markedly different from a video game movie pull off video game-isms more successfully than those who lean into their identity.
That being said, the segmenting that this approach causes leads some of the film’s middle chapter to drag a fair bit in comparison to its creepy opening and its emotional finale. It leaves the pacing feeling a bit like a stick shift car struggling to switch gears on a hill. It does come together in a third act that initially felt overlong, but concluded in an ending that made the entire endeavor worth the journey, bringing a tenderness to a film that I expected no such thing from.
Detention is more engaging than I anticipated it to be, and while it struggles a bit in a perfect execution of balancing supernatural horror with a political thriller, it uniquely builds an atmosphere that feels very reminiscent of the personal, helpless feeling you get while behind the controller of a good survival horror game. There’s just that anxious pit in your stomach that genuinely makes you uncomfortable, but also doesn’t abuse you with it so much that it can’t tell a proper emotional story at its core. When most East Asian horror is all about going big and effects-heavy for obvious spooks, to see Detention eloquently deliver horror with nuance is a nice change of pace.
In theaters and virtual cinemas October 8th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Detention website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.