While horror filmmakers often rely on the imagination to conjure up scares, some need look no further than human history to find terrors worthy of exploration. Set during the White Terror in Taiwan (a period of martial law that lasted over 38 years) Detention is many things; a haunted house tale, a romance, and a tragic historical reckoning. Adapted from the popular computer game of the same name, the film tells a complex and ultimately heartbreaking story not unlike the work of Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker who has utilized genre works to mix the factual and fantastic. Unfortunately, the end result is a mixed bag that never quite manages to balance its myriad of ideas.
The opening is befitting of a standard historical drama: it is 1962 and Wei (Tseng Ching-hua) is a young student attending Greenwood High School. In a small supply closet, Wei takes part in a secret club led by his teachers, Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi) and Mr Zhang (Fu Meng-Po) in which they read and discuss works of banned literature, including communist works. The sense of confined revelry does not last long, however; in an abrupt and confusing shift, Wei and fellow classmate-cum-crush Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang) are thrust into an eerie deserted evening where the school appears to be haunted by supernatural creatures which may or may not be malevolent spirits. From there, the film utilizes flashbacks to illustrate a complex story of love, betrayal and murder that illuminates the nightmarish White Terror.
Throughout the cross-cutting of past and present, it remains beautifully composed, taking full advantage of its gothic setting, and filled with unsettling details. While there are moments of gore and jump-scares, the supernatural horrors never manage to be as scary as the all too-recognizable human evil. There are certainly some interesting ideas in play that attempt to marry the two, and to some degree, it is successful (visually, in particular) however too often the nightmarish imagery only serves to muddle what is real versus what is only being imagined, and by whom.
In spite of its insightful exploration of trauma, the film ultimately loses some of its power as a result of its insistence to play puzzle-box with the narrative. It is difficult not to attribute this to the video game of it all; a first person adventure game is a very different storytelling experience from a narrative film, and yet it often feels as if an effort is being made to be faithful at the expense of story economy. Similarly, the characters are similarly too thinly drawn to sustain carrying the emotional core of the story, which more often than not results in falling back on cliche.
There is something to be said for a film which utilizes the sort of ambition on display here. If it fails to completely excel at being so many things at once, there are plenty of individual moments that are either chilling, gut-wrenching or both. By the time the film reaches its somber finale, it is difficult not to wish for a film that had managed to live up to the grace and power of its final moments.