Content Warning: Detention (2019) depicts explicit imagery pertaining to suicide and bodily harm and death of underaged characters. This piece will also contain spoilers for both Detention (2019) and the eponymous game it is based on.
In the early 1960s, Taiwan was under a state of martial law that today would become known as the White Terror. Any sort of political dissidence against the government, such as the consumption of left-wing or “communist” material, meant disciplinary action—including death if deemed necessary.
Taiwanese developer Red Candle Games used the White Terror as a backdrop for their video game, Detention, centered on the perspective of a young student who finds herself trapped and alone on school grounds as horrible things have mysteriously begun to manifest in it. The game’s success inspired several other media adaptations related to it, such as a film directed by John Hsu in 2019. While Detention (2019) has garnered several well-earned accolades, including a Golden Horse Award for Best New Director, it departs from the source material in ways that both benefit its nature as an adaptation but also detracts from the intentions of the original story.
“There is hope if you stay alive[….]”
The film begins with a sequence following several students walking towards school as numerous military personnel are surveillancing the area. We are immediately introduced to Wei Chung-ting (Tseng Ching-hua), a well-meaning student who manages to deflect attention off another boy from potential disciplinary action by Instructor Bai (Hung Chang Chu), a military officer stationed at the school. Throughout the day, Wei catches glances towards Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang), a fellow student he, for some reason, feels a connection to. Wei sets himself up as the narrator for the rest of the film, which essentially is a long recollection of “nightmares” he had while in prison in a future time we eventually learn about later on.
Wei reawakens back at school in the dead of night, finding that the grounds now look shuttered, destroyed, and in shambles as if the place has been abandoned for years, with monsters dressed in militaristic garb roaming about. He soon runs into Ray, and the two begin to bond as they try to navigate their way out while trying to evade monstrosities and twisted versions of former schoolmates and teachers.
Through a series of flashbacks interspersed with horrific, surreal scenes, we learn that Ray had a troubling life at home dealing with her parents’ broken marriage, urging her to turn to Mr. Chang (Fu Meng-po), the counselor. Mr. Chang co-runs an underground book club with Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi), a teacher, that engages with material precluded by the state. Several students are members, which includes Wei. Initially unaware of and taking no part in Mr. Chang’s secret extracurricular, Ray develops a crush on him to the point where the relationship becomes too personal and potentially inappropriate.
Ray witnesses an exchange in which Miss Yin urges Mr. Chang to stop his relationship with Ray to dedicate more time to the book club to further ensure its membership’s safety, which Ray misinterprets as Miss Yin standing in the way of what they have. Following the fallout in which Ray’s mother falsely implicates her father to be taken away by authorities, Ray is deluded into thinking that similarly implicating Miss Yin will remove what is standing in the way with her and Mr. Chang. Unfortunately, Ray was unaware that she had put the entire book club at risk and the entire membership was imprisoned and assumed to be executed—including Wei and Mr. Chang.
With these facts in mind, the film cuts back to Ray back on the school grounds, finally revealing she had killed herself after the incident and that she has been dead this whole time. The climax of the film quickly cuts to a series of various avant-garde sequences that blur reality interspersed with more flashbacks, such as a vision Ray imagines of her classmates getting executed by a firing squad in the culmination of denying her guilt. After confronting a visage of Instructor Bai and overcoming the force of another monster, she and Wei finally reunite and the two make their way to flee from the school. Ray chooses to stay behind, finally accepting her guilt, and encourages Wei to live and not forget what has happened before he wakes up again back in prison.
It is now the present day, and an alive and elderly Wei reveals that the school has since shuttered. Visiting the abandoned site, he sits at his old desk and sees Ray’s spirit sitting across from him. Assured that Ray is now at peace, he leaves behind a book that Mr. Chang intended to give her.
Numerous creative decisions gave Detention (2019) a chance to stand on its own, albeit on some shaky ground. One of the biggest differences between the film and the game is their choice of exposition, in which the film splays out much of the backdrop of the plot’s events in a very chronological manner. You are made to understand the underground book club’s existence early on in the movie very clearly, and the threat of the White Terror is hammered in repeatedly. Even the relationship between Ray and Mr. Chang—information that the player needs to suss out to support the game’s twist—is outright used in the lede in some of the film’s promotional material. In the original game, the player is plopped into the school with little prior knowledge as to what is going on in media res, and a lot of the exposition is established by items found throughout the setting.
The movie’s decision for a more straightforward narrative serves another crucial change compared to the game: the elevation of Wei’s character to become a little more developed than his counterpart. In the game, the player experiences the world solely through Ray’s perspective. Although this enhances the framing device made with Wei’s purpose as a narrator, it muddles things if one were to rely on the crux of the video game’s main takeaway. The movie frequently oversold a “fated” connection between Wei and Ray, which is at odds with how infrequent Wei’s role was in the game’s plot to service the necessity of Ray’s journey—a journey that she needed to deal with alone. Intertwining Wei as a more active character confuses the thematic intentions and imagery associated with Ray’s death.
The player’s gradual understanding that Ray is dead is a dramatic twist when one realizes that the whole game is basically her trial through purgatory. A noticeable lack of the religious Buddhist themes in the movie—sans Ray’s mother’s obsessive religiousness to cope with her unhappy marriage—removes the poignancy that points to Ray’s soul being trapped in a state of suffering, a karmic cycle until she is willing to confront the horrible truth of what lead to her death in order to finally move on. Maybe these themes were not as emphasized in the movie, because to Taiwanese audiences these ideas would be assumed. That said, it is reasonable to accept that Detention the game can just be a Ray think piece, while Detention the movie explores a more wider character study of both Ray and Wei.
The weakest parts of the movie unfortunately lie within the horror itself, where while the character of Instructor Bai succeeds in instilling the very real fear of authoritarianism, the CGI effects on some of the monsters could be more refined. Where this weakness shows ultimately goes back to the reorganization of the source narrative. The monsters the characters encounter feel a little more random as to what their intended purpose was for the movie’s new intentions. That said, numerous iconic shots and scenes from the game were recreated in vastly differing ways to fit this new narrative that fulfill both story and spook factor well. Although we do not see Ray, alone, slumped on a chair in the school auditorium like the player would in the prologue of the game—a scene often used in the game’s promotion—the movie incorporates and reinterprets elements of this peppered throughout.
Perhaps the movie should have relied more on the psychological drama aspects of the story and less of what were mechanics that its nature as a game necessitated. It speaks a lot towards the strength of Detention’s political allegory and how its horror elements were meant to be supplementary. But the film is still a brilliant portrayal of political drama intertwined with horror just like the material it was inspired by.
All that aside, Detention (2019) is an utterly gorgeous feature with strong cinematography that defines a clear divide between more unsettling moments with dark, cool colors in contrast to a bright, more pastoral and earthy palette used in more comforting and hopeful scenes. There is a stark visual contrast between the world of the dead and the world of the living.
A particular shot that stood out in the first quarter of the film is a simple scene in which Ray slowly walks the school corridor. Shot in profile, various layers of windows between the foreground and background eloquently emulate the side-scrolling parallax effect used by the game. The film’s score also serves the integrity of what was on screen, which seems to stick closely to the game’s own soundtrack composed by Weifan Chang, who was inspired by Taiwanese funerary music.
Despite some key differences with its source material that left a few cracks in the foundation of its plot, Detention (2019) is able to serve its story through the film medium while being distinct from Red Candle Games’ creation.
Following the controversy that pulled their game, Devotion, from several storefronts, Red Candle Games inadvertently gained more publicity. This also redirected attention back to Detention in Devotion’s period of inaccessibility. Although a DRM-free version of Devotion is now available, Red Candle Games seems to have no intention of shutting their doors, no matter what forces of censorship try to do. After all, not only have both game and movie received acclaim, Detention also earned itself a short series produced by Netflix in 2020 that loosely takes place after the game’s events.
It is easy to watch Detention (2019) with bitterness if you do not take off your glasses tinted by the experience of playing the game. But if you are able to sit through it with an open mind, Detention is another great example of how horror can be used in unconventional ways to not only scare, but to educate, and a solid adaptation like this is an impactful way to spread its message to wider audiences.