The Sadness

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Sadness
"The sheer quantity of imitable violence in the film is likely to frighten censors around the world." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

What darkness lies at the heart of man? The Sadness has been described as a zombie movie but there’s something more complex going on here. The Alvin virus, we are told, is seen by most as a harmless, ‘flu-like infection (by people naïve enough to believe that ‘flu is harmless) but people ought to be concerned about its potential for mutation because of its structural similarity to rabies. Yet whilst rabies causes hydrophobia, confusion and aggression, what we see here is a scenario in which the infected retain their ability to think but lose all of their inhibitions, experiencing a compulsive desire to act out their most horrific fantasies.

That it owes a lot to the work of David Cronenberg – especially Shivers and Rabid – will come as no surprise to anyone, but it’s much more handsomely produced than the Toronto director’s low budget masterpieces, something which will doubtless give it audience appeal but which deprives it the rawness that the subject matter really needs. For all the gore on display, it’s too easy to read it as unreal. Its director, Rob Jabbaz, is also Canadian by birth but has spent much of his life in Taiwan, where the film is set. He references numerous other Western horror films in the course of telling a tale which is likely to be read quite differently by East Asian and wider international audiences.

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Some of the reference points here are strictly for Taiwanese viewers. 2020’s Get The Hell Out imagined the country’s parliament transformed into zombies and whilst this is a little subtler, the jabs at leading politicians are not hard to spot – indeed, they come close to being literal. There’s some thinly disguised criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Jabbaz reserves a little more venom for ‘plandemic’ style conspiracy theorists, even as he reminds us that, under normal conditions, they can be perfectly pleasant people to be around. He makes no bones about the fact that when one group of people refuses to take a disease outbreak seriously, everybody can end up suffering.

Jim (Berant Chu) is just an ordinary guy gong about his daily business when chaos breaks out around him. The mutated virus is not only horrific in its effects, it’s highly transmissible and very fast-acting (in this regard you’ll have to leave any understanding of virology at home). Preoccupied at first with the demands of survival, he soon becomes frantic about the safety of his girlfriend Kat (impressive newcomer Regina) whom he recently dropped off at work on the other side of Taipei. The rest of the film follows the couple’s efforts to get back together without being killed in the process. Even with the aforementioned hazards in mind, this is less straightforward than you might expect.

The sheer quantity of imitable violence in the film is likely to frighten censors around the world so it was good to catch this at the Fantasia International Film Festival in uncut form. It’s also screening at Frightfest. Driven into a frenzy by the violence around them, assorted individuals use whatever comes to hand to injure others, resorting to teeth and fists only in the absence of weapons. Jabbaz picks his locations carefully so that we don’t actually see violence against children, but it is implied. Much of the violence is sexual, and although it is made clear that anyone can be a target of this (in a radio announcement which recalls Racccoona Sheldon’s The Screwfly Solution), it creates a particularly ugly environment for women. Even hardened horror movie fans may find themselves upset by the language alone.

Is all this justified? Opinions will vary. The key artistic point is made early on so one might argue that much of the rest is gratuitous, but Jabbaz’s aim seems to be to bludgeon home that point in order to ensure that nobody can walk away from the film denying the reality of the potential for violence that exists all around us all the time. In an early scene, before she has become aware of the developing situation, Kat is harassed by a stranger (Wang Tzu-chiang) on the MRT, Taiwan’s metro/light rail system. It begins with a question, “What are you reading?” which may sound innocuous to male viewers but which will immediately set women on edge. It’s all too familiar as a prelude to unwanted physical contact. The threat is there already; all the virus does is to make visible the hatred simmering beneath the surface.

Keeping the film from being unrelentingly bleak is Regina’s spirited performance. She manages the tricky task of making Kat a fount of of love and decency without making her boring. In the midst of chaos, Kat will go out of her way to help a stranger, and in doing so she carries hope for all of humanity. Might some of us pass through the world uncorrupted, whether due to a fluke of genetics or just luck? If we do, can it make a difference? Jabbaz does not, in the end, promise us very much, but this teasing possibility keeps the rest in perspective. It also makes room for questions about what happens when the violence has run out of steam. The infected here are, in their way, the epitome of freedom, but their blaze of rage is consuming them too.

Reviewed on: 16 Aug 2021
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The Sadness packshot
After a year of combating a pandemic with relatively benign symptoms, a frustrated nation finally lets its guard down. This is when the virus spontaneously mutates, giving rise to a mind-altering plague. The streets erupt into violence and depravity.

Director: Rob Jabbaz

Writer: Rob Jabbaz

Starring: Regina, Tzu-Chiang Wang, Berant Zhu

Year: 2021

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: Taiwan


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