This year’s online edition of the New York Asian Film Festival has officially commenced! Unfortunately, the streaming service that the organizers have partnered with is mobile exclusive, and the only compatible device that I own is my tiny, outdated iPhone (theoretically, I could have utilized screen sharing to project the video onto a smart TV... but technical difficulties foiled that plan). Luckily, the reduced image quality did little to diminish my enjoyment of the first movie I chose to watch: Detention, which also recently screened at Fantasia Festival.
Stripped down to its most basic components, Detention could be accurately described as a “horror film,” but although it features its share of supernatural elements—foreboding, haunted hallways; tall, gnarled monsters; and pale, dark-haired ghost girls—the true source of its terror lies far closer to reality. The story is set in Cold War-era Taiwan, where merely possessing a “subversive” book is considered an act of treason punishable by death. Despite the obvious risk involved, members of the faculty and student body at a prestigious school conspire to hand copy banned texts, all in the name of preserving the dream of freedom. When two classmates awaken one night to find themselves trapped on campus, they must race against time to unravel the mystery behind who—or what—has imprisoned them.
In terms of its tone, themes, and visual style, Detention owes an enormous debt to Guillermo del Toro’s more overtly political work (especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth). It meditates on such challenging and relevant topics as oppression, repression, suppression, conformity, uniformity, and the deterioration of identity and individualism under tyranny and totalitarianism. Sure, it isn’t exactly subtle, but… well, some messages really do require the finesse of a sledgehammer.