Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 02, 2020 10:34 pm 
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An elegantly filmed videogame of a moment in Taiwan's repressive 1960's

This film is set in 1962 during Taiwan's long nightmare of government repression, a period when hyper-vigilance against communist infiltration dominated national daily life. Two students are trapped at the hillside Greenweood High School at night. Trying to escape, they discover a missing teacher and run into ghosts and what the Wikipedia article calls "the dark truth of their fate." Detention, strangely enough, is based on a videogame described as a "survival horror adventure." Knowing that makes things a lot clearer.

That medium seems a strange entree into the rarely depicted "White Terror" period of the Kuonmintang regime of repression in Taiwan when thousands were executed. It leads to a rather strange combination of the elegant and the crude - but elegant prevails and this film won a raft of awards in Taiwan. As a depiction of an historical moment, it's odd to see the horror movie style used. On the other hand, this is a classy horror movie, one that's never really frightening, but with awfully good-looking young men and women representing students repressed for a book club presided over by two dissident teachers (reading Turgenyev's Fathers and Sons - a very serious offense), a striking sound design (too loud, in the horror movie manner, but still subtle by horror movie standards) and a nicely recorded score of strings and piano by Luming Lu and handsome cinematography by dp Chou Yi-Hsien. The choice has been made to depict the horror of government repression as a horror movie, but a tasteful one. This is a handsomely made movie, but ultimately not a very interesting one by the standards of films about repressed students and spooky government oppressors.

In the film's favor, it's banned in mainland China. It "enjoyed strong box office success in Taiwan and Hong Kong (Wikipedia). On the other hand, it doesn't seem likely to arouse much excitement among western viewers. Those in search of historical truth will find events dealt with too impressionistically. Genre horror fans will find it too restrained and tasteful. Some young men are dunked head first into vats of water. One gets his throat slit by a young woman. There are a couple of executions by bullet. There is some intimidation. The best scenes are those at the beginning when students are meeting clandestinely and being found out.

Really there don't seem to have been a wealth of ideas about how to vary scenes. Many of them involve young men (with nice eyebrows, casting seemed to favor those) in khaki shirts and pants being marched or pushed around, or given the head-dunking treatment. The staging is dark and grand, rather than bright and intimate, where in might have been more scary.

In her Variety review Jessica Kiang notes that the "White Terror" period has been little depicted in film, that the Taiwanese would rather forget it (but those who forget risk repeating). An exception is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 A City of Sadness and Edward Yang alludes to it in his 1991 autobiographical masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day. Hsu's Detention is meant to be what Kiang calls a more "populist" and less "arthouse" approach. It's extraordinary to learn that The White Terror period lasted over 38 years, staring in 1947 and ending in 1987. That's a lot to forget.

It winds up being an "ambitious, but not entirely successful" mashup of "haunted-house horror," of "monster movie" of "love story," and "historical reckoning" or "sentimentalized call" for national reckoning. At best it probably couldn't do all that. The videogame source accounts for an effective theatricality, but also thin characterizations and a sense that events are mechanically predetermined rather than natural. But after all, the whole thing is intentionally surreal in style.

The dissident teachers are led by Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi) and Mr Zhang (Fu Meng-Po), who pass out the banned books to the nice looking young men/boys and women/girls. As Kiang puts it their discussion sessions are "bathed in a honeyed nostalgic glow", which leads us to expect a standard glossy historical film. Then suddenly the film morphs into a nightmare where the school is transformed into a wasteland with monsters and torture, with a network of flashbacks depicting the book club's betrayal, and the repression - arrests, torture and executions - that followed, as well as details as to Miss Fang's troubled home life and relationship with Mr Zhang, Finally in the action "rather cleverly," Kiang thinks, "it’s revealed just who is doing the dreaming of this hellish place, what their real mission is and how it relates to the history of the White Terror and the fog of willful amnesia in which it has been shrouded." That's a large order, and some of it was lost on me. Multiple viewings might be necessary. But since this lacks the breath of real life one doesn't feel highly motivated, though this is, in its way, a beautiful film to look at and listen to, without question.

Deterntion 返校 ("Back to School"), 102 mins., debuteed at Busan Oct. 2019, showing also at Taipei Golden Horse, Taipei, and Miami. At Golden Horse it won seven major awards and was nominated for five more. Screened for this review as part of the 2020 virtual New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12).

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