Rob Jabbaz’s The Sadness absolutely earned the trigger warnings that accompanied its screenings at Fantasia Fest 2021. Those who do not wish to contemplate copious gore, cannibalism, sexual abuse, necrophilia and other distressing and extreme topics would likely be best served by avoiding both the movie and this review. This particular film is impossible to engage with without discussing its razor sharp contextual edges. Please consider this opening paragraph a content warning/parental advisory/chance to close your browser window and go look at cute animals instead.
In an alternate timeline Taiwan, a virus is rapidly spreading through the population. People are brushing off the rising infections as little more than a bad cold, claiming the disease is a hoax meant to manipulate the economy, and generally turning a public health issue into a hopelessly political one. Doctors and scientists are trying to warn the public that the Alvin virus has structural similarity to rabies, and can easily mutate into something more dangerous, but their message is mostly getting lost amongst the media and political infighting.
Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu) are a young couple, and despite the pandemic and a miscommunication regarding their planned vacation, a happy one. As per usual, Jim drops Kat off at the train station. He then rides back into town for a coffee. A pretty ordinary day. Both the real life parallels and countless movies condition us to expect that calm to end shortly, and The Sadness‘ tightest tensions are in that wait for the inevitable.
For Jim, it comes in the form of an old woman, an unfortunately timed batch of french fry oil and a sharp set of nails scraping the melting skin off an innocent short order cook. For Kat, her skin crawlingly creepy encounter with a lecherous older man on the train (Tzu-Chiang Wang) is cut short. Unfortunately, what initially seems like a relief quickly becomes a nightmare. No sooner has she switched seats when a fellow passenger starts going on a slasher rampage, stabbing whoever he can reach and soaking the confined space in a geyser of blood. As violence and chaos erupts in the streets, Jim and Kat must find a way to survive and make their way back to each other.
It’s a simple, familiar plot, all the better to show off the specific horrors the Alvin virus has awakened. The infected aren’t exactly zombies, though the virus spreads through the usual assortment of blood, bites and bodily fluids. Victims’ eyes go black and their faces are frozen in a grinning rictus. However, infected have their memories, can still talk and maintain all of their usual abilities and faculties. Well, all except any sense of morality, that is. The virus rewires the limbic system so that sex, sadism and violence are all one constantly connected need. The end result is somewhere between 28 Days Later‘s rage virus and Firefly‘s Reavers.
Rob Jabbaz is clearly a quick study of exploitation and extreme cinema, as the atrocities he piles on call back to some of the most notably gruesome examples of the form, with an early Cronenberg flavor to the nature of the virus and its effects. There’s Hong Kong style splatter, enough graphic language to make even hardened subgenre fans squirm, and two set pieces that are obvious callbacks to some of the most not safe for life moments of 2010’s A Serbian Film. There’s even a late stage swipe of the questions regarding the true nature of the civilized that were the classic flimsy censor shield of the 80s cannibal boomlet.
While most of the sexual assaults (of both the living and the dead) are not shot nearly as explicitly as the parade of unrelenting ultra violence, what is depicted is more than enough to keep a constant sense of discomfort and nightmarish psychosexual menace humming at a hellishly loud pitch for most of The Sadness‘ runtime. Even seasoned gorehounds may find the film’s particular mix of sex, death and questionable complicity a rough watch.
In fact, the unnamed businessman who was harassing Kat on the train becomes the most terrifying of all of these crazed antagonists, stalking her through the narrative with a stomach churning level of sexual obsession that makes the various bloody mutilations seem almost the lesser of the evils. He was discomfiting as a normal man, and infection emboldens him to a level that’s inhuman even in a city full of monsters. He’s a walking, talking powder keg of the vicious revenge fantasies of toxic masculinity.
This is gruesome stuff, and the primarily practical effects are well done for the price point, blood and brains flying across the screen at every turn. The editing and sound design are carefully calibrated to maximize the visceral squirm of every slash, crunch and slam. Considering the sheer brutality of it all, one should feel something when viewing it, but at about the 30 minute mark it becomes glaringly apparent that best parts of The Sadness are what lies in between the Grand Guignol.
The terrifying stillness between the set pieces and the more genuinely interesting ideas are abandoned to dangle half formed amongst the viscera. The gore starts out stomach churning, and as the runtime progresses, becomes more of an interruption. Right when things are getting interesting, a bay of blood washes away the tension and forward momentum.
There’s a sharp aesthetic in the lingering shots of an almost painterly blood soaked subway car, the slow moving neon lit close ups of solitary infected grinning maniacally at the evil they’ve produced, or Jim furtively creeping towards his scooter to escape the chattering infected littering the streets. There’s a more genuinely eerie sense of fear to these moments, and they make a better showcase for composer duo Tzechar’s soundtrack/scoring work, which makes synths feel fresher and more interesting than they have in a long time.
The weaker, less narratively relevant gore scenes are a distraction from the larger points The Sadness is clearly trying to make, but not quite enough plot or character development happens to make the film fully work at feature length without them. If the balance had been tweaked slightly to allow both sides a touch of breathing room, the film might have hit on something truly transgressive rather than merely nihilist or provocative. As it stands, a lot of its bigger thematic grace notes are somewhat awkwardly shoehorned into the last third of the film. The Sadness teeters on the edge of something great, but never quite maximizes its bleak and brutal brand of potential.
In this movie’s universe everyone is discontented, privately depraved, and full of frustrations in regard to all the things in their life that don’t work out as they should. Be it incels full of sexually frustrated rage or government officials more concerned with petty power squabbles than a public heath crisis, The Sadness suggests that regardless of the virus, the sickness was already here all along. Having to mask up merely lead to all of that underlying toxicity taking its mask off.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director: Rob Jabbaz
Writer: Rob Jabbaz
Stars: Regina Lei, Tzu-Chiang Wang, Berant Zhu
Release date: January 22nd, 2021
Studio/Production Companies: Machi Xcelsior Studios
Run Time: 99 minutes