'Detention' director reminds audiences of Taiwan's fight for freedom

Taiwanese thriller film "Detention." (CNA photo)

Taiwanese thriller film "Detention." (CNA photo)

The psychological horror film "Detention" is remarkable in many ways.

For one thing, the film, which follows two students who find themselves stuck in their empty school and haunted by vengeful spirits, is the first film produced in Taiwan adapted from a video game created by Taiwanese software engineers.

The film also became the highest-grossing domestic movie in Taiwan this year within three days of its release in September, and has since garnered more than NT$250 million (US$ 8.12 million) in box office receipts.

On top of its commercial success, the film has received an annual best 12 nominations at this year's Golden Horse Awards, in categories including Best Feature Film, Best Leading Actress, Best New Performer and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It is remarkable considering that director John Hsu (徐漢強), who is nominated for Best New Director at the Golden Horse Awards, has never directed a feature film before.

However, what is most remarkable, perhaps, is how the film, which takes place in Taiwan in the 1960s and started production in 2017, feels relevant to the current times.

In an interview with CNA, Hsu said neither the six-person team behind the game's creation nor the team of filmmakers who worked on its adaptation intended to create what some have dubbed the vanguard of a new cultural movement in Taiwan.

"We had very simple motivations when we started our projects," said Hsu. "The responsibility to history in the story and the resonance it created was so much bigger than we ever imagined."

According to Hsu, the creators of the game were inspired by the novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" to tell a story of oppression, and how ordinary citizens suffer under that oppression, in order to illustrate the value of freedom.

When they began to brainstorm the context in which the game would take place, the creators decided to focus on a period of Taiwan's history that perfectly exemplified the chilling atmosphere of distrust and persecution they wanted to illustrate.

For 38 years and 56 days from 1949-1987, Taiwan was subject to Martial Law in which people were subject to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

"When they put that [piece of history] into the game, everything made sense," said Hsu.

When it came to adapting the game into a film, Hsu said that though it was an adaptation, there were elements they still had to change.

For instance, although players can definitely tell the game takes place in 1960s Taiwan, the game doesn't include elements that would make the context explicitly clear, Hsu explained, such as the flag of the Republic of China, or busts of the country's leaders.

"It would be very strange if these elements didn't appear in the film, so we had to make them very prominent," Hsu said, adding that there was nothing for them to shy away from or avoid.

Another challenge in the process was how to strike a balance between the two vastly different storytelling techniques used in video games and films, Hsu said, which he accepted gladly.

"What our generation is searching for is how to find new ways to tell stories, while continuing the traditions we had been taught," Hsu said, "This is also what I'm most interested in."

However, at the end of the day, the film's unflinching take on the horrors of oppression make it clear that its main goal is to remind Taiwanese audiences of this period of history, and how difficult it was to gain the freedoms people enjoy today.

As the film's release coincided with a time of widespread discussion in Taiwan on the importance of these freedoms, sparked in part by Hong Kong's anti-extradition bill movement and the lack of democracy in the Special Administrative Area of China, both the film and Hsu are now under the limelight.

"I'm a bit panicked in the face of all this. You don't really expect these sort of things to happen." Hsu said.

"I guess it's just fate."

Updated : 2021-01-27 18:24 GMT+08:00