Fanxiao [Detention] (2019)

Director: John Hsu
Writer: Shih-Keng Chien, Lyra Fu, John Hsu
Based on: the game of the same name
Cast: Gingle Wang, Meng-Po Fu, Jing-Hua Tseng, Cecilia Choi, Hung Chang Chu, Yue-Ti Liu,
Part of: SLASH Filmfestival
Seen on: 22.9.2020

It’s 1962 and Taiwan is under strict martial law. Fang (Gingle Wang) and Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng) wake up in their school campus, but something bad is going on. The campus is abandoned, decrepit and monsters are roaming the halls. It seems all tied to the secret book club run by teachers Mr Chang (Meng-Po Fu) and Ms Yin (Cecilia Choi) where Wei and others read censored literature. Apparently the police caught up with them and that is very bad indeed.

Fanxiao is a visually distinct, political film that knows how to use the horror genre to tell its challenging narrative. I was really impressed with it.

The film poster showing Fang (Gingle Wang) holding a candle in a dark school hallway littered with paper.

Detention is a very political film. I am not particularly familiar with the political history of Taiwan (though, fortunately, we got a bit of a primer from the festival before the film), but even without that context, the film talks eloquently about the dangers of a military regime and oppression that invariably lead to betrayal, torture and death.

To do that, it takes everything the horror genre has to offer and builds a very complex structure – flashbacks and nightmares intermingle freely here. More often than not, such an ambitious project is doomed to fail but not so here. It all works without ever becoming confusing – or at least unintentionally confusing. And it stays atmospheric at all time, drawing you in and keeping you in the nightmare that Fang and Wei experience here.

Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng) and Fang (Gingle Wang) making their way through students standing in military order, all with bags over their heads.

One of the biggest strengths of the film are its visuals. They contribute a lot to said atmosphere. Both the monster designs – the police monster or the faceless ghost – and the calmer moments are absolutely unique. I don’t know how much of that might come from the game the film is based on as I’ve never played it (but I want to now) but either way, it was captivating.

Despite everything and to my own annoyance, I did fall asleep towards the end. Though in this case, this bears absolutely no reflection on the film itself. But it means that I have to re-watch it, which I’ll do, well, gladly is probably the wrong word for a film that is this heavy, but I’ll still be looking forward to it.

Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng) and Fang (Gingle Wang) sitting at a desk, a candle between them.

Summarizing: Very strong.

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