Detention ★★★★½

Day 9: Detention

OMG! This was brilliant. I am not a gamer so never heard of this Taiwanese game and had no idea video games could be this political in nature. This film uses the tropes of horror in a way similar to Jordan Peele to deliver a gut punch of social/political commentary.

Here's the backdrop to the story that's helpful if you are not familiar with Taiwanese history or politics. The particular chapter in history is not often covered in any films, not even Taiwanese ones since there seems to be a kind of willful amnesia about it.

Set in 1962 Taiwan, during the time of the White Terror when martial law was in effect across the country and thousands were executed by the repressive government of the time. It's a time of extreme repression, and all ideas considered to be dissident are banned, and the culprits are tortured or executed.

The story involves a pair of teachers who decide to start an underground literary club where students can read banned books and copy them into notebooks. It is a group of kids risking their lives to read poetry and dream of freedom.

Taking his cue from the video game, director John Hsu uses a populist format -- this time the horror genre -- to tackle questions about national guilt, how to remember the past, and coming to terms with the horrors of repressive regimes in the hopes of avoiding them in the future.

The film mixes elements of haunted house scares, monsters, and political thriller. There are some odd narrative shifts and tonal changes but if you stick through to the end it all makes sense and is actually quite clever. The perspective shifts as the story progresses and we discover who is having the "nightmare" at the center of the film.

What proves most horrific is the political reality of a repressive regime. It's not just the physical torture that they use but also the way they use fear to control people and to encourage conformity. There are truly chilling and disturbing scenes reflecting the consequences of one person providing information to the government.

The film and video game have been banned in China. I have no idea how the game and movie compare, but I thought the film took a complex and often ignored part of history and made it accessible and even shockingly relevant.

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