In 2017, Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games released Detention – the game from which director John Hsu’s new fantasy horror film is adapted. Set in the 1960s, the game is about two students who wake up in a classroom to find their school destroyed and a storm trapping them on the grounds where murderous creatures roam the halls. The art was hand-drawn and simple, with a limited color palette. You played as a young girl named Fang Ray Shin who moves like a paper puppet across the screen. All of it contributed to the bombshell reveal of what this world was and why Fang was trapped in it.
Incorporating religious and mythical iconography, Red Candle used the game to tell a story about the culture and history of Taiwan that was atmospheric, frightening, and educational. I, for one, had not known much about the 38-year long stretch the country spent under martial law, named the White Terror period. When I started playing this game, I did not expect this point-and-click side-scroller to delve into the horrors of living in a fascist state and the violence enacted by the military during this period.
Red Candle received accolades for Detention, and in 2019 released their second game, Devotion. I did not get to play Devotion, but I heard it was a fantastic game showing even more growth from the studio – now set in the 80s, it features an aspiring child star stuck in an apartment with her obsessive father. Devotion was available for only a few months before being pulled from online storefronts due to controversy. A talisman on a wall in a scene compared the Chinese president to a children’s cartoon character, an insult that would not be tolerated. That was all it took.
How interesting that a video game telling a story of students reading banned books, made by a developer whose second game was censored, would receive a cinematic adaptation, broadcasted to us digitally, at a time in which the spread of information has so much weight to it – and sometimes so much risk involved.
Like the game, the film adaptation begins with the introduction of Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng), a student member of an underground book club that meets in a storage room in their school. In Taiwan, reading any text that disagreed with the Chinese Nationalist party was punishable by death. Wei has a run in with Fang (Gingle Wang) in which she finds the banned texts in his possession. From here, their stories become intertwined with one another and with a surreal nightmare neither can escape.
Reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth in its approach, Detention is beautiful to look, juxtaposing a horrific fantasy realm against a story about the lives of young people under martial law. Yet it does not fully gel until the third act, disjointed in its intermingling of the two stories until all of Fang’s tale has been revealed. Beats in one world don’t fully connect to the other, sometimes too much time is spent on elements that don’t quite build the sense of mystery the filmmakers are trying to maintain. What is effective is the translation of some of the video games most devastating imagery from 2D paper cut outs into real space with real bodies. Throats are slit and bodies are maimed. The shock I felt witnessing the violence against these young, curious students was equivalent to how it hit me when playing the game. It is undeniable that these punishments are inhumane. Even in a fantasy setting, Fang’s peers meet such a brutal fate.
Those who have not played the game may be perplexed by some of the horror sequences, getting more from the primary narrative in their day to day lives. But as a supplement to the game I found Detention pretty interesting, seeing its story presented in a new form, its ideas communicated in a more grounded landscape. Where the game required the player to piece together scraps in order to decode what led Fang and her classmates to this point, the movie spells it out.
Despite a meandering pacing and some disconnected threads, Detention still offers a valuable fable and a reminder of a history that may seem like the distant past – but is far from it. Detention asks us to have empathy for one another when living in a world filled with cruelty and to never forget what we have seen no matter how painful it may be.