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Fantasia 2020

[Fantasia] ‘Detention’ review: Video game adaptation that fearlessly tackles difficult topic

A subject not often talked about.

Movies based on video games are a risky proposition. As much as fans long to see their favorite games adapted to film, the final product tends to disappoint. Screening at the Fantasia Film Festival, Detention is a horror movie based on the game of the same name. Can the film break the curse of failed video game crossovers?

Detention is set in 1962 Tawain. It is a period of martial law and unrest. Two students names Fang Ray-shin and Wei Chong-tin are part of study group that reads banned books. One day, their teacher disappears and they become trapped in the school. The two try to find the missing teacher and escape the now haunted location before it is too late.

Movies born of video games have some common threads. Games do not have the same narrative expectations that film has. Characters tend to be very thin and the plot can sometimes be confusing. Detention is no exception. It uses a nonlinear approach that is not always conducive to a good movie. For example, the heavy reliance on jump scares and monsters early on is similar to a video game prologue. Meanwhile, though some will find them engaging, the characters are little more than horror movie tropes.

So how is Detention able to rise above the normal video game adaptation? The movie won multiple Golden Horse Awards (the Oscars of Taiwan). It was also a box office juggernaut in spite of (and possibly partially due to) being banned in mainland China. This type of critical and commercial success is unusual. Clearly, this is more than just some film based on a game.

[Fantasia] 'Detention' review: Video game adaptation that fearlessly tackles difficult topic

For starters, the narrative is willing to tackle a subject that is rarely referenced. The White Terror in Taiwan was an almost four decades long period of martial law. Books were banned, people were imprisoned, and supposed spies were executed. It was a dark time in the country’s history that movies have not often dealt with. Most of the times it has only been referred to in passing.

Detention addresses the White Terror head on. There are many scenes depicting torture and executions. The villains are dressed in the garb of the Chinese Nationalist Party. The message is very clear. The monsters are just stand ins for those responsible for the White Terror. The ending hammers this point home with a lack of subtlety that may cause some eyes to roll.

[Fantasia] 'Detention' review: Video game adaptation that fearlessly tackles difficult topic

The film also looks beautiful. Most horror movies are content to reside in the shadows. The greys and washed out colors add to the atmosphere. While Detention is no exception in that regard, it does have a more polished look. It is as if director John Hsu is using the camera to make up for the shortcomings of the script. This leads to a film that sets a disquieting tone that never gets too frightening.

Detention is a typical video game adaptation in many ways. The soundtrack and characters are run of the mill while the plot can feel sparse. It would be a mistake to immediately discount it, however. The story is willing to address themes that are not seen from other video game movies. More than just pleasing its built in fanbase, it has a message to deliver.

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