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The Sadness Review

May 9, 2022 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
The Sadness Image Credit: Raven Banner Entertainment
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The Sadness Review  

Directed by: Rob Jabbaz
Written by: Rob Jabbaz

Regina Lei – Kat
Berant Zhu – Jim
In-Ru Chen – Molly
Tzu-Chiang Wang – Businessman
Lue-Keng Huang – MRT Employee
Ralf Yen-Hsiang Chiu – Mr. Lin
Wei-Hua Lan – Dr. Wong
Chi-Min Chou – Old Woman

Running Time: 99 minutes
Not Rated

It’s not often that the Fantasia International Film Festival gives content warnings for its yearly screenings. And that’s understandable to a degree. Most people know the festival as a place that recognizes there is value in taboo-breaking material, and horror has always been a “buyer beware” genre. Thus, people generally go into films at the festival knowing that they may breach personal boundaries.

So, when last year’s festival said of Rob Jabbaz’s Taiwanese outbreak film The Sadness, “Fantasia rarely gives trigger warnings, but this film warrants all of them,” my attention was piqued. And suffice it to say, I was blown away – not just by what I was watching on the screen, but how effective it was as a film. Arriving this week on Shudder and inspired in part by Garth Ennis’ horror comic Crossed, this is a brutally transgressive and uncompromising film that has some pointed (to the point of being on the nose) things to say.

The Sadness starts off in a fairly nondescript way as Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) wake up together in their apartment in the capital city of Taipei. He’s a photographer; she has a more traditional corporate job. As they go about their morning, they argue about Jim’s work conflicting with their plans for a holiday, chat with their neighbor across balconies, and Jim drives Kat to the train station to head to work.

The low-key, calm approach to the opening is a canny move by Jabbaz, who adds just enough elements to make us wary. We learn through little moments here and there that Taiwan has been dealing with a pandemic, albeit one with fairly benign symptoms, and some believe it to be a hoax. The brief moments that occur to start – Jim seeing a woman on a faraway roof in a blood-smeared gown, and police dealing with a crime as he and Kat drive by – keep us on the alert that things aren’t going to be calm for long.

And when he unleashes…oh wow, does he not hold back. The virus mutates, sending the citizens of Taipei into a bloodthirsty, depraved state and Jim and Kat must try to find each other amid the carnage and absolute horrors surrounding them. It cannot be emphasized enough that The Sadness finds every boundary of society and pole vaults across them. Violence, cannibalism, sexual assault, sadism, necrophilia – this movie has it all. I’m not one for egregious bolding, but it must be said: If you are sensitive to the depiction of these kinds of things, be warned that this is not the movie for you.

And yet, it must also be said that Jabbaz handles it all seriously and never minimizes what’s happening for humor’s sake. He’s spoken in interviews about how Hong Kong exploitation movies often treat taboo topics like sexual assault and child murder like a joke. The Sadness never once does that. Instead, the flowing blood and violence shocks and appalls as our leads – and Molly, a woman Kat saves on a train when things go mad – attempt to survive and navigate the chaos that is fantastically (if nauseatingly) brought to life by the practical effects.

As harrowing and difficult as it is to watch the extreme content, Jabbaz notably shows some of his most uncomfortable moments in the quieter bits. The measured pacing allows for time so that the audience can catch its breath, and some of these include some scenes that make the skin crawl for more contextual reasons. When Kat is on a train with a businessman ignoring her boundaries, hackles immediately start to rise even though there’s no violence yet. And when characters brush off the pandemic as a government hoax (yes, this was developed and shot during COVID-19), it hits uncomfortably close to home.

Films like this can bring plenty of gory sizzle, but without characters we can root for there’s none of the proverbial steak. Fortunately, that’s where the trio of Lei, Zhu, and In-Ru Chen step in. They breathe life into Jim, Kat, and Molly and make us want to root for them, even as hopeless as their situation might be, which is refreshing in a genre that, much as I love, often times we’re rooting more for the monsters than the “heroes.”

In case it isn’t clear, there is a lot going on in this film. Jabbaz broaches his themes about the breakdown of society with all the subtlety of a warhead, but that’s needed for a film that breaks this many rules. He is ruthless in his efficiency as the film rapidly hurtless to a sufficiently brutal ending, but also knows when restraint works better. As objectionable as the content is, this isn’t a film that feels reprehensible in the way A Serbian Tale does and that’s thanks to Jabbaz’s approach.

All that said, the film does have a few minor potholes along the way. There isn’t much character development – we get snapshots of these characters at best, and often not even that – and not every violent setpiece works as well as it could. But if nothing else, you can be assured that one way or another this film will be living rent-free in your head for a good, long time after the credits have rolled.

The Sadness will be available to stream on Shudder on Thursday, May 12th.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Transgressive and brutal in the extreme, The Sadness is the absolute definition of "not a film for everyone." That said, Rob Jabbaz's feature film debut is a potent, squirm-worthy ride through the core of human darkness that has a lot to enjoy for fans of extreme horror. A pack of solid performances anchor the emotional stakes and Jabbaz's messages are delivered with blunt force as the film pushes relentlessly toward one hell of an ending.

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The Sadness, Jeremy Thomas