Detention (返校, John Hsu, 2019)

“Have you forgotten or are you scared of remembering?” a mysterious supernatural force seems to ask the heroine of John Hsu’s ironically named Detention (返校, Fǎn Xiào). In fact, the Chinese title means something close to “back to school”, hinting at its central message which uses the, it argues forgotten, tyranny of the “White Terror” to remind us that freedom is hard to win but harder still to keep. An unfortunately timely message given the assaults on democracy across the world but even more so given the recent protests in Hong Kong which have found support in Taiwan as it too looks back on its complicated history.

Based on a popular survival horror video game, Detention’s first hero is idealistic student Wei Zhong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua) who we quickly learn was picked up and tortured by the military police for reading books banned by the regime as part of an underground club run by two of his teachers – mild-mannered artist Zhang (Fu Meng-po) and stern musician Yin (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan). Set in 1962, the film finds itself at the height of the “White Terror”, a period of martial law which lasted for 38 years, during which any resistance real or perceived towards Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government was brutally suppressed with thousands tortured, imprisoned, or killed by the regime.

Wei finds himself in a lucid nightmare, trapped in his school building which has become derelict and seemingly abandoned while cut off by a raging flood. Gradually he starts to piece together memories of what must have happened, realising that his fellow club members seem to be absent and something must have happened with the military police. While in the school he runs into a fellow classmate, Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang Ching), though she doesn’t quite seem to remember him. Having apparently fallen asleep and woken up in this nightmare world, Fang seems even less clear about what’s going on than Wei but desperately wants to find their teacher, Zhang, with whom, we learn, she has fallen in love. 

Plagued by horrifying visions that maybe repressed memories or simple nightmares, the pair are chased by giant monsters dressed in KMT uniforms standing in for the terror of living under an authoritarian regime. Only, these particular nightmare soldiers are literally “faceless” in that their hollowed out skulls, which themselves sit on fetid, rotting corpses, are filled only by a mirror making plain that the faces of the “faceless” regime are our own. Fang and Wei become convinced that someone has betrayed them by giving one of the illicit books to arch militarist teacher Inspector Bai, but they can’t be sure who it was, finally doubting even themselves in their inability to remember the exact circumstances which brought them here. 

Flashing back to the “real” world, we discover that one sort of oppression cannot help but lead to others. Fang’s father is a respected soldier and supporter of the ruling regime, but he’s also abusive towards his wife, enforcing a rule of fear and violence even within his own home. Her mother has taken to religion in order resist him, regretting her marriage and furiously praying that he will soon be “gone for good”. “Gone for good” becomes a kind of mantra for others straining to free themselves from obstacles to their desires. Fang learns all the wrong lessons from her parents, allowing herself to be corrupted by their twin failures – her father’s in being a willing participant in the oppression of others, and her mother’s in subverting the world in which she lives in an attempt to free herself from violence. 

Yet, as Zhang later tells her, no one is really at fault because they are all victims of the oppressive rule of the KMT. The ruined schoolhouse becomes a kind of repository for the orphaned memories of a forgotten past. You can tear it down and build a fancy apartment complex over the top, but the ghost of authoritarianism is always lurking on the horizon, and capitalist success will not safeguard your freedom. Those left behind have to tell the story so  this never happens again because those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Zhang imagined himself a narcissus, living in his own world without caring what other people thought and claiming that the solidarity of silent understanding is the best cure for loneliness, but he lived in times in which he had no freedom in which to live, sacrificing his own future to become the selfless roots of emancipation blooming only for those who will come later.


Detention screens in Amsterdam on March 5/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival. It will also screen in Chicago on March 26th as part of the 10th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Father to Son (范保德, Hsiao Ya-Chuan, 2018)

Father to Son posterEvery son kills his father, but echoes of the past prove hard to escape in Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Father to Son (范保德, Van Pao-te). Legacies national and personal conspire to frustrate the dreams of the young while the old are left with nothing more than enduring mystery after a lifetime of disappointment. Faint notions of mortality send an old man on a quest to understand himself by making peace with his long absent father and taking his own son along for the ride, but perhaps there really are no answers to the questions you most want to ask, or to put it another way perhaps it’s better to answer them yourself.

60-year-old Van Pao-te (Michael Jq Huang) is feeling his age. He’s taking longer in the bathroom and he’s no longer as agile as he was. A handyman with a hardware store, Van is also something of an “inventor” and has several patents in his name but cannot escape the feeling of being unfulfilled, as if something in his life has always been missing. A twinge fixing a pipe for a doctor friend provokes a fuller examination as a result of which Van is told he may have a serious pancreatic illness and is advised to see a specialist in Taipei, but Van hates doctors and so he puts the decision off. Meanwhile, he goes to the city on other business. Honoured for his contribution to Taiwan’s intellectual economy thanks to his inventions, Van is also presented with an unexpected opportunity to do business with a Japanese company. Rather than deal with his medical problem, Van visits an old friend for an address he was first offered 30 years ago and decides to look for his long lost father who abandoned the family when Van was 10 in order to try his luck in the burgeoning Japanese post-war economy.

History repeats itself eerily. Van dreams of the night his father left in anger and resolves never to become the kind of man that he was but finds himself falling into his father’s footsteps. His own son, Ta-Chi (Fu Meng-Po), is a man much like him – which is to say, he is torn between duty to family and a desire to follow his dreams. Ta-Chi works in the hardware store, but his talent is for coding and he’s already a mildly successful app builder. Van thinks he should go to the city and make something of himself, but is worried that he won’t because he can’t leave his ageing parents behind alone.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing because the beautiful niece of the woman who runs the dry cleaners has just blown in from Taipei to cover the shop while her aunt goes to the city for cancer treatment. A splash of excitement in this tiny town, she has created quite a stir among Ta-Chi and his friends which is exactly the same thing that happened thirty year’s previously when the current hotel owner first arrived in town. At select moments we also get voice over narration from Kuo Yu-Chin (Aria Wang) who, as she tells a friend, caused some “trouble” back in 1987 only to leave and then return again later. She and Van seem to share a painful history and mutual resentment over a future that never was. Yu-Chin wonders if the stories of the past that you want to hear are hidden in the future or if it’s the other way round, but if their background music choices are to be believed there seems to be a part of them always stuck in 1987 and waiting for an excuse to leave.

Like his father, Van considered leaving his family to chase a dream but he couldn’t do it. As Ta-Chi later puts it, he wasn’t “heartless” enough. Van learns enough about his father’s later life to confirm what he suspected, that his dad was no good and best forgotten, but that only leaves him with a lingering sense of resentment and inferiority in wondering if he wasted his life sticking around his hometown to make a point about a man who never gave him a second thought. He doesn’t want the same thing for his son, but hasn’t figured out the best way to push him out of the nest without breaking his heart.

While Van is caught in a web of existential confusion attempting to break free once and for all from the destructive memory of his father, Taiwan too finds itself pulled between conflicting colonial echoes while striving to embrace an identity all of its own. Hsiao paints a melancholy picture of inescapable tragedies and generational miscommunications, eventually advancing that a father’s love for his son is often buried in silent sacrifice, but does so with warmth and sympathy, resigned to the cruel ironies of time.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Verse (最後的詩句, Tseng Ying-Ting, 2017)

The last verse posterThe dreams of youth seem destined to elude two idealistic Taiwanese romantics as they fall in love, out of love, into debt and then despair. Set against 16 years of turbulent Taiwanese history, The Last Verse (最後的詩句, Zhòu de S) follows two ordinary teenage sweethearts whose humble dreams of conventional success are consistently undermined by familial legacy and economic instability. Society crushes the dreams of those who refuse to abandon their youthful idealism, but then again perhaps they destroy themselves through chronic insecurity and a refusal to address their own failings rather than conveniently assigning blame to all but themselves.

In the golden summer of 2000, Ren-jie (Fu Meng-Po), nicknamed “poet” meets Xiao-ping (Wen Chen-Ling), the love of his life. The pair start dating and are sure enough about their future to be discussing long term financial plans, but Ren-jie still needs to complete his military service and so their lives are currently in a mild hiatus. Everything starts to go wrong when Ren-jie receives visit a from his estranged father – a broken shadow of a man whose wife left him because of his drunken violence in the face of the humiliating failure of his business when his towel factory went bust. Ren-jie didn’t want anything to do with his dad and sent him packing, only to bitterly regret his decision when he commits suicide on the way home by gassing himself in his car.

This original failing is the fracture line from which all Ren-jie’s subsequent sufferings unfold. Despite signing away any right to his inheritance in order to avoid taking on his dad’s debt, Ren-jie can’t shake off the vicious loansharks his dad once borrowed money from. Having managed to get a well paid, if morally dubious, job as an investment broker Ren-jie’s life ought to be progressing towards middle-class success. He lives with but is not legally married to Xiao-ping who also has a good job at a magazine, but is putting off legalities until the advent of financial stability. Ren-jie is therefore stubborn. He won’t pay the gangsters off because he doesn’t want his father’s legacy and resents their intrusion into his otherwise “respectable” life. He will learn, however, that there are things that cannot just be overcome through bloodymindedness and his male need to avoid being seen to back down is primed to put those he loves in great danger.

Ren-jie’s life is indeed ruined by the precarious era in which he lives as well as the legacy of that which came before, but his destruction is also at his own hands as he falls into a well of toxic masculinity which eventually leads him to harm and then betray the innocent love of his youth. During Ren-jie’s military service, some of the other men suggest staying on in the armed forces – most laugh off the idea but it does at least offer a secure paycheque, a fixed term contract, and the possibility for advancement – all things useful if, like Ren-jie, what you want is to get married and start a family even while still relatively young. Ren-jie, however, did not take this path. We don’t find out why he lost his well paid banking job, if it was the gangsters or the economy, but a few years later sees him an embittered estate agent trying to sell rundown flats in the middle of a housing crash to clients who know they’re better off waiting. Embarrassed not to be able to “provide” for a “wife”, Ren-jie’s male pride cracks under the twin pressures of being forced to give in to the gangsters and fearing that he is not good enough for Xiao-ping, paranoid that she will eventually leave him for someone with more money.

Xiao-ping, however, remains fiercely, idealistically in love with the boy she met at the river all those years ago. Ren-jie, making a common enough though self obsessed mistake, fails to see that financial success is not something that Xiao-ping worries about in any other way than wanting to see the man she loves fulfilled. What Xiao-ping wants is a conventional family life, but Ren-jie’s constant money worries and personal insecurities consistently deny her before he eventually makes another cruel and selfish decision that will only cause her additional suffering.

Ren-jie’s internalised self-loathing eventually boils over into violence, recalling the unwelcome legacy of the father he did not want to become. Yet Ren-jie is also a failure, a drunk, a violent man having meaningless sex with married women in empty apartments in order to try and reassert some kind of control in his largely powerless life. Unfairly burdened by his father’s literal debts, a legacy of violence, and the crushing hopelessness of his existence, Ren-jie has lost the sense of “poetry” which so endeared Xiao-ping to him all those years ago at the river. The memory of those sunswept days, romanticised as it might be, becomes both a touchstone and a dangerous symbol of all that has been lost and can never be regained. Unable to reconcile themselves to the compromises of adult life, the ballad of Ren-jie and Xiao-ping is destined to end in tragedy, self-inflicted wounds the only escape from the crushing hopelessness of a relentlessly indifferent society.


The Last Verse was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Tseng Ying-Ting from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival.