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‘The Sadness’ (2021, review)

The Sadness is a Taiwanese survival horror film by Canadian director Robert Jabbaz, in his feature debut.

While the film is one of the most explicitly violent and perverse horror films released in recent memory, its extreme content is supported by a deft COVID allegory, and a pessimism about society-at-large that is surprising in its depth and fearlessness. If you can stomach The Sadness, you’ll find one of the most thoughtful heirs to the legacy George Romero’s Dead films.

Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) are a young couple living in the suburbs of Taipei during a worldwide pandemic.

In the film’s opening a news host debates a virologist on whether the virus, which is “no more serious than the flu”, has been overblown while virologist tells us the virus may mutate into variants which resemble rabies.

The social commentary is not particularly subtle, though I did appreciate how real the opening scenes featuring a twenty-something rolling out of bed and flipping through YouTube videos felt.

In a cinematic world where directors still feel like they don’t know how the internet actually works, it’s nice to watch a film where the main characters feel so genuine.

After the couple goes their separate ways for a day’s work both are soon beset by the infected– ordinary people who are turned into black eyed sadists who compulsively torture, rape, and kill until they themselves are destroyed

This sort of opening, the ordinary day that soon descends into madness, has become somewhat rote for zombie films since the 2004 Dawn of The Dead remake, but it’s carried off spectacularly here. Jim is confronted by an outbreak at a restaurant that features a new use for fryer oil, and the most cheerful vehicular homicide in recent cinematic memory, and before we can catch our breath we’re on the subway with Kat in a slow burn sequence of terror with one of the most horrifying payoffs I can think of in a zombie film, ever.

Fair warning, even for dedicated horror fans, The Sadness is one of the most extreme films in content that I’ve seen in quite a while, and it definitely has the power to shock even a hardened veteran of the genre.

The virus here ramps up the violent and sexual impulses (“which are really just the same thing” one character intones, in one of the films sneakiest and darkest little bullets of hate for the world) of the infected making them totally unable to resist any sadistic impulse they may feel. This culminates in a sequence in a hospital ward with mutilation and extreme sexual violence.

This is by no means a film for everyone.

This would be an exercise in excess if it wasn’t for, as I’ve alluded to, a thread of philosophical pessimism, almost nihilism, that runs through the film and is finally given real form in the final act. The COVID outbreak revealed fractures and great frustrations in polite society concerning masks, vaccines, empathy, and trust in our institutions. The Sadness manages to tap into that rage to justify its baroque violence, but it never takes sides. Politicians and the military are shown to be spineless talking heads, and just when we think we trust a virologist he reveals himself to be a technocratic monster who is, in his way, more evil than any of the zombies in the film. This conspires to create a tone that recalls the very best Romero’s Dead films: the idea that society is not a bulwark against cruelty, but rather the process of making it predictable and manageable through justification.

There’s something deeply appropriate about the choice of Taiwan for production. No country has had to deal with COVID longer, save China, than Taiwan and it developed the “lockdown” strategy that became the worldwide norm. The feeling of inevitable dread in this film mirrors the COVID experience in Taiwan– waiting for the monster to arrive, watching helplessly as it tore its way through friends and neighbors. As an avid observer of East Asian cinema, I hope this film is the beginning of a renewal for the film industry in Taiwan, a country that has produced some of the finest films in the region.

The Sadness isn’t for everyone, but if you can stomach the hyper-violence, you’ll find a horror experience of depth and power that few recent films can rival.

Check it out on Shudder, which owns the exclusive rights in North America.

4 out of 5 stars

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Jeffrey Huang, David Barker, Wei-Chun Lu
Written and Directed by Rob Jabbaz
Starring Berant Zhu, Regina, Tzu-Chiang Wang


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