Credit: Fantasia Fest
by Mike Thorn Featured Film Streaming Scene

Detention | John Hsu

December 5, 2020

Detention recommends director John Hsu’s future efforts, but this debut effort falls mostly short of the mark.

John Hsu’s debut feature Detention isn’t so much a horror film with political undertones as it is a historical, political drama with brief flashes of horror imagery. Unfortunately, it fails to station itself effectively in either of its ostensible genre territories. Set in Taiwan during the 1960s, at the height of fascistic martial law, the film’s present-tense plot begins with two high school students waking up to find themselves trapped in their vacated campus. Flashbacks reveal that the protagonist Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang) acted as a whistleblower against a secret leftist book club she attended, leading to the government-mandated torture and execution of several peers and teachers. Much of the film focuses on this past timeline, which also tells of a star-crossed love affair between Fang and her teacher Chang Ming-Hui (Meng-Po Fu). Through sophisticated framing, lighting, and production details, Hsu demonstrates a commendable visual aptitude, which is clearest when the film unfolds in the present tense. However, the knotted story places much of its emphasis on flashbacks, which become mired in tiresomely didactic dramatic conventions. 

Also unfortunate is the film’s engagement with horror imagery: rather than capitalize on the genre’s potential for allegory or symbolic heft, Detention crudely grafts its horror iconography directly onto its story and offers very little beyond literalized expressions of already-present threats. The film’s spectral figures (beautifully animated, cadaverous, uniformed government officials) are simply stand-ins for known evils from the flashback timeline: fascist surveillance in the White Terror era of martial law. When it comes to horror, the film shows its hand too early and too carelessly. Its spooky moments are mostly compelling, especially in the first act, but the genre elements quickly feel weightless and out of place, deflated of allegorical potential. When it comes to political drama, the narrative is broad and manipulative, resulting in a rather standard, unsubtle historical piece with arbitrary and unsatisfying invocations of the supernatural. Director Hsu shows great potential, especially for a first-time filmmaker, and the film includes some striking images, but its cumulative effect leaves much to be desired.

You can currently stream John Hsu’s Detention on Netflix.

Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2020 — Dispatch 3.
Also published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 4.
Also published as part of Nightstream 2020 — Dispatch 1.