Fantasia 2021: The Sadness Is Worthy of All the Warnings

In a Taiwan that is getting tired of warnings about a seemingly innocuous virus Alvin, Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu) reluctantly get ready for work and look forward to spending time together later. However, this just happens to be the day that this virus mutates—radically and rapidly—and work falls down their priority list just as quickly. The Sadness is all about that day, about the violence and traumas that the young couple face while doing all they can to stay safe, reunite and help those they can along the way.

That’s the story in a nutshell, though of course there are subplots and tragedies as any quest/disaster film hybrid might have. But that nutshell tells you nothing about just how extreme The Sadness is, and you may well read that word a lot in relation to this film. I’ll give you this warning straight and then head back to my balanced review: The Sadness is probably the goriest film I’ve ever seen. You thought the ending of Martyrs was tough? This one is relentless almost all the way through. Baskin was maybe a bit much? Every merciless moment in The Sadness happens in broad daylight. This is one bold and impressive film.

The Sadness is the feature film debut of Canadian writer/director Rob Jabbaz. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he imagined an alternative Taiwan in which there is virtually no respect for the government’s rules or fellow citizens’ lives, in complete contrast to the country he was living in. He took essential pandemic fears and extrapolated them, squishing our little coronavirus into perspective. No, really: no matter how you feel about our current health crisis (and I take it seriously), it is nothing like the one you see in The Sadness.

Some of the marketing led me to expect a zombie film. The Sadness will appeal to lovers of the zombie model, but what we have here is a definite tangent: these people who attack and consume others in the film are not undead. Of course, there have been zombie films based on infections (28 Days Later, for example) and films about people becoming violent due to chemicals (such as The Crazies). In The Sadness, these are not monsters but real people with (mixed up) reasoning and intellect: they know what they are doing when they stab, boil, slice, peel, and rape those they encounter. To me, this makes it extra scary. Yes, there is a sexual element to some of the violence, though thankfully without the explicitness of the gore. Unlike traditional zombies, these attackers talk and use weapons: as I said, they are real people. And there are lots of them, delivering a true bloodbath to their city.

Molly (Ying-Ru Chen) getting her own back in The Sadness

The mutated virus allows the people it infects to become like an animalistic version of themselves, letting go of all polite inhibitions and repaying those who they see as having made them timid in the first place, and indeed all around them too. Prime examples are Molly (Ying-Ru Chen) and the businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang), who clearly don’t know how to be themselves until Alvin strikes, but then they discover the liberating power of violence. In fact, all the infected seem to relish the condition they find themselves in, euphoric and reborn almost.

I’d love to ask Jabbaz why he named the film The Sadness; perhaps it is something to do with the tragedy of being unable to express oneself without an overpowering catalyst such as this virus. I’m sure there is some broader social commentary in the film, but frankly, the visual content was so overpowering that you’ll have to excuse me for not noticing. The gruesome effects (almost exclusively practical) and Jie-Li Bai’s vibrant cinematography make the bloodlust inescapable, and they are severe right from the start. In fact, the first instance brought me right back to The Toxic Avenger.

The collapse of society in The Sadness

Unlike good old Troma, there is virtually no humour in The Sadness. There are hope, willpower, and compassion, but the brutal action is so fast and persistent that there isn’t time for any of those positive feels. Still, Kat and Jim keep going, trying to get back to each other’s arms. Despite the collapse of society, love will keep going; or maybe regardless of love, society will still collapse. This determination (though without much sentiment) reminded me of Train to Busan at times; but then some nasty piece of work on the screen talked about what he’d just done to someone’s eye sockets and Busan faded into the family-friendly background. Tzechar’s music captures this blend of tones perfectly.

So would I recommend The Sadness? If you are prepared to go in with your eyes open, and either don’t need any content warnings or simply assume them all, then yes. It is riddled with death and destruction, and yet strangely not at all morbid. It is daring and pushes boundaries without hesitation. Above all, it is full of surprises, and yet does not rely on either twists or jump scares. This is an action horror with the absolute most action and horror, perfect for those of us who want to stare COVID in the face and declare screw you, I’ve seen worse.

The Sadness has its North American premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival on 21 August and UK premiere at FrightFest on 30 August.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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