Taiwanese film wins five Golden Horse Awards 

But will I gain the courage to watch it?

They say it’s good; however, I’ll have to take their word for it. I was given the opportunity to watch Detention, labelled a “supernatural screamer,” since September. I opened my email at night when the lights were so low in my apartment that just seconds into watching the preview I got so scared I decided that was as much as I could handle. So now I’m reviewing a film that I haven’t watched.

Schoolgirl stands under a light with people behind her


Detention won five Golden Horse Awards for Best New Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Song.

Taiwan’s hit horror thriller Detention enjoyed a hybrid opening in U.S. theatres virtually on October 8 and in cinemas the following day. The film has been nominated for 12 Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, the country’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, and ended up winning in five of the nominated categories: Best New Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Song. After all those awards, saying that the film is “The best video game adaptation ever made!” is simply an understatement.

It seems good, but I only have the courage to read about it, not enough courage to watch it.

The story takes place in Taiwan in 1962 during the period known as the White Terror, a time when the country was under martial law. People were living under a repressive regime where certain ideas were banned. Many people who spoke out were disappeared, tortured or executed.

Despite being watched by the military police, Professor Chang (Fu Meng-Po) runs an underground literary club at Tsuihua Secondary School where he and his students learn about banned books. One of the book club members, Fang (Gingle Wang, in a Golden Horse-nominated performance) falls in love with him. The usually shy teenager “manages to open up like a book in his presence.”

Chang suddenly disappears. Fang wakes up at her desk one night to find that the school has changed. She wanders the hallowed halls in search of her teacher until she meets Wei (Tse Jing-Hua). Together, they confront the ghosts and monsters that linger in their school.

I read through the description again and decide to press the “play” button to watch the “creepy new trailer” for the film. I last 41 seconds before pressing “pause,” this time and started to laugh hysterically.

Things I wondered about: Are the monsters in their minds, are the ghosts real, and will the horrors in the film be human made? Is the film based on folklore? Did it really happen? These are similar to the questions I asked when The Blair Witch Project was playing in theatres years ago.

Knowing that Detention takes place against the historical backdrop of the White Terror, almost 40 years of authoritative rule in Taiwan, makes the thought of lingering souls in this realm an even more frightening concept.

A sleeping girl in her school uniform in the middle of an echoing hall awakes abruptly when she hears someone calling her name. The camera pulls away as she tries to figure out where the voice is coming from. A soul curdling sound convinces me to press the “stop” button.

The video is stuck on a scene with fully dressed legs hanging from the ceiling, seemingly unbeknownst to the schoolgirls and a man dressed in military uniform below. Straight ahead, in front of shredded cloth hanging down a wall, a massacred flag hangs behind a man whose body is frozen still. His head points to the ground. His legs are tethered with a rope attached to the ceiling.

From only 41 seconds I can tell that the film is a nightmarish psychological thriller that plays with all our senses. It’s the directorial debut from co-writer John Hsu and is said to enter Guillermo del Toro territory in cinematic style and tone. 

Critic Isaac Feldman on RogerEbert.com says that Hsu took on a rare challenge with telling the story of the White Terror on screen. That story was part of a cinematic plot only one other time, in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Golden Lion-winning A City of Sadness, released in 1989 during a period of political and societal reform in Taiwan. Feldman says the multi-layered atrocities that happened during the White Terror explains the appeal of exorcizing those demons through horror. 

Last year’s La Llorona from director Jayro Bustamante took on a similar theme with the reimagining of its “titular weeping woman” who comes back to the realm of the living “as a force for truth, justice, and reconciliation in post-genocide Guatemala,” adds Feldman.

Detention is likely the first of many films from Hsu. As astounding a cultural feat as it seems, I will have to find out what’s going on another time, preferably during daylight when other people are in the room. 

Detention was adapted into a hit TV series also based on the videogame from Red Candle Games on the Steam distribution platform. The film stars Gingle Wang, Fu Meng-po, Tseng Ching-hua, Cecilia Choi, and Hung Chang Chu, in 104 minutes of horror presented in Tiawanese with English subtitles.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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