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Unlike most video game adaptations, the movie “Detention” doesn’t look or feel much like a game. But then neither does its source material. Both the original and the film fall loosely into the mystery-adventure genre, but both also offer detailed character studies and painful history lessons alongside their puzzles. There are also elements of horror in “Detention,” which features monsters and ghosts. But this isn’t a jump-scare or creature-blasting kind of experience.
Set in a socially oppressive 1962 Taiwan (in the era sometimes referred to as “the White Terror”), the big-screen “Detention” stars Gingle Wang as Fang, a student in a depressingly strict high school. Director and co-writer John Hsu establishes the school’s rigor early on, while also showing how a few teachers have begun holding secret classes for kids open to poetry and radical ideas.
When Fang wakes up one day in what appears to be an alternate-dimension version of her school — cut off from the outside world by floods and patrolled by uniformed beasts with mirrored faces — she and her classmate Wei (Tse Jing-Hua) have to figure out where exactly they are and whether they can escape.
It’s here where “Detention” most begins to resemble the subgenre of video games half-jokingly referred to as “walking simulators,” where players move their characters slowly around a landscape or a building, soaking in the environment while searching for clues.
But following the lead of the game, Hsu then lets those clues guide Fang into long, highly cinematic flashback sequences as she pieces together how her miserable home life — and her crush on one of those progressive teachers, professor Chang (Fu Meng-Po) — may explain her current predicament. The story winds its way to a climactic surprise.
Though ostensibly a horror film — with a few scattered images of icky gore — “Detention” doesn’t really aim to shock. It’s more about reckoning with Taiwan’s past and examining how an authoritarian society can force people to make impossible choices. In gaming terms, this movie’s characters find themselves on a screen where every move leads to a bottomless pit. The nightmare they’re in is as existential as it is visceral.
In Mandarin with subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: Starts Oct. 15, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; available Oct. 22, Laemmle Virtual Cinema
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