Liberty Times (LT): “Detention” (返校) has been very successful at the box office, earning more than NT$250 million [US$8.17 million] since it was released [on Sept. 20]. It has also received 12 nominations for this year’s Golden Horse Awards. Are you satisfied with these results? If you could start over, what would you do differently in terms of writing and directing?
John Hsu (徐漢強): I have been thinking about this question the whole time and still have not been able to detach myself from it.
In terms of regret, there are regrettable things in every aspect. The story was seriously difficult to write, because Detention not only recreates a story of 1960s Taiwan, but is also an adaption from a video game with the same name. It had to respond to the players’ expectations about the original work. I was also a player of the game. In fact, playing the game was what made me want to adapt it into a film.
Photo: Peter Lo, Taipei Times
During the creative process, my two roles — as creator and player — were constantly pulling me in different directions. How do I let audiences who have never played the game understand it? How do I satisfy audiences who have played the game? To find a balance between these two extremes requires extraordinary skill.
If we could start over, and given more time to hone the script, we could have done a better job of balancing the original and the adaptation.
LT: The film is set in the White Terror era. For older generations who went through the period and have experienced different nightmares, the material the film touches upon does not fully restore the climate of fear and austerity of the past; it only goes into it to a certain point. However, for younger generations, “Detention” is like a seed, and can blossom into different flowers in their hearts. How do you see the lack of satisfaction of older audiences?
Hsu: When I took on the job of adapting the game, I discussed with Red Candle Games [the Taiwanese independent studio that developed the game] their intention in creating it. Originally, they had simply wanted to develop a game with a dystopian theme. It was only until after they had begun [developing it] that they discovered they could apply that era to the story.
After much discussion, they really did not think they could let the game be given such enormous historical significance. So in the end, the game adopted a more indirect and “set in, but fictional” approach to bring out White Terror issues.
My stance is very simple. As a loyal player of this game, what I wanted to do most was to introduce the story featured in the game to more people.
However, I also wanted to avoid scaring away audiences because of the historical background. What I could do was to try my best to restore the historical landscape, and to strike a balance between history and the game.
When I first discussed with producers Lee Lieh (李烈) and Lee Yao-hua (李耀華) the direction of the film, our consensus was that if Detention could help audiences who are unaware of this part of [Taiwan’s] history become willing to begin understanding the past, then we would have reached our goal.
LT: Did the public feedback for “Detention” conform with your expectations?
Hsu: If the White Terror was featured too prominently in the film, it might not have attracted as large of an audience. When Detention opened in the theaters many audience members were younger than I expected. Detention is rated for general audiences, so a person must be at least 12 years old to see it. Originally, I had anticipated the main audience would be university students, but a lot of 13 and 14-year-olds ended up seeing it.
Perhaps before seeing the movie they knew nothing about the White Terror era, but these are different times. These young people are more open-minded than people from that era, and more willing to understand history.
They are also more capable of independent thinking than we were, and receive information from a larger number of sources than we did. They are less afraid of challenging authority. I feel like we must have opened a door to make them more willing to look back at those years.
The response to the movie from the older generation was also quite varied. Naturally, there were those who felt that the harsh atmosphere of the era was handled too lightly, but there were also those who said it was as if the film had “switched on” memories from the period they were not even aware they had.
During a question-and-answer session following a screening, some of the older viewers were stirred emotionally. They said they had never thought about how things unfolded back then. At the time my feeling was that if I were more capable I could include more details about the White Terror era, and the outcome would be even better.
LT: What do you feel is the greatest significance of this film?
Hsu: As I said earlier, I do not dare say that I am qualified to handle this period of history, but the film reached a much greater audience than I had imagined it would.
In the beginning, I did think about how the movie would trigger discussion on the subject, but I never imagined the response would be so great. In the past if you were to touch upon a subject as heavy as the White Terror era, your film would not do well at the box office.
Previous directors earned great respect for delving so deeply into the subject, but the question remained of how to get an audience into the movie theater.
Now, with this movie surpassing NT$250 million in ticket sales, it is obvious that people are willing to see this type of movie. In the future I anticipate the emergence of many more great storytellers who will broach this subject with even greater efficacy.
Translated by staff writers Sherry Hsiao and William Hetherington
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