My notes on Fanxiao (Detention) (2019), which has screened/streamed at Fantasia.
On one level, this ranks among the most unusual and ambitious films ever adapted from a computer game – but, on another, it feels a lot like a Silent Hill movie that uses the ruin of a school run by a totalitarian state rather than, say, a demon-haunted abandoned asylum as a backdrop for a survival horror scenario.
In Taiwan, 1962, under martial law and in the grip of the cold war, a school looks more like a prisoner-of-war camp, with Instructor Bai (Chu Hung-chang) as the kind of fanatic martinet commandant Anton Diffring used to play in British WWII movies. Rather than planning an escape, the inmates here expend their subversive energy on a secret book club where they study (and make copies of ) banned works – Rabindranath Tagore gets a name-check – with a leftist political slant. Wei (Tseng Ching-ha), a member of the club, and Fang (Gingle Wang), a quiet girl he likes, wake up disoriented in a nightmare version of the school, haunted by demons and ghosts (a faceless schoolgirl, a mirror-masked version of Bai) and memories of a crisis which has brought the two together but also prompted a lot of human collateral damage. The political specifics are underlined, but it turns out that the non-supernatural story has more to do with general issues – crushes on teachers, broken marriages, loyalties and betrayals – than the situation during Taiwan’s White Terror.
There are shocking tableaux, as the principles struggle to remember how they got here and what happened to everyone else they know, and some standard-issue spook stuff. The two leads are good, though everyone else has to play stereotypes as if the young principles were incapable of understanding nuances of anyone else’s character – a valid point, but one that makes for slightly too pat drama. Directed and co-written by John Hsu.
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