I only have maybe two or three other people who write for this site who are more suited to discuss horror cinema. Regardless, the genre I usually cover sometimes veers into the gruesome and horrific enough that my own viewing experience ultimately warrants some growth along the way, and so upon covering Fantasia, I couldn’t resist checking out The Sadness, the feature directorial debut of Taiwan-based Canadian filmmaker Rob Jabbaz who, as of this write-up, just won Best First Feature out of the festival.
Other critics and festival programmers who’ve seen this film have had plenty to say, in addition to this being a film definitely made for a crowd. Under lesser-life threatening circumstances, I would certainly agree, and not for nothing either with Jabbaz’s inaugural crowdpleaser serving up as a timely arrival for theatergoers, at a very tender moment in history more than a year and a half following a deadly pandemic, and a landscape corrupted by disinformation, paranoia and political skullduggery, which makes The Sadness feel a lot more visceral than one might think.
Partly taking inspiration from the 1996 gut-wrenching The Ebola Syndrome according to Fantasia programmer Mitch Davis’s own notes on the festival’s website, The Sadness introduces young couple Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei), awoken one quiet morning on what looks like any other day in the neighborhood. Going about their usual mundane routine with Kat off to work and Jim at home until his hustle the following week, the two are effectively separated amidst to what their surprise turns out to be a viral pandemic – its seriousness long ignored by the government, and its mutation in full tilt now triggering an uptick in violent incidents spiraling out of control, from one deplorable and inhumane act to the next.
It’s up to Jim and Kat to fend for themselves as they traverse the new dystopian hell that surrounds them, until they are both reunited once and for all. Regardless however, there are miles between them, the streets puddling with devastation, dead bodies and pools of blood, and millions more helplessly infected with the urge to act on their inner-most savage and sadistic intentions, including an businessman (Wang Tzu-Chiang) whose own infection makes Kat a target for the axe-wielding infectant, and time is running out.
Throughout the course of this film’s campaign, if you haven’t heard by now, you’ll stumble upon a great deal of chatter about The Sadness as the latest reinvention of the zombie genre. That ain’t exactly far from the truth, one packed into a narrative that’s as much of a socio-political allegory as it is a fitting revamp of zombie lore; aside from the intriguing etymology of the very name the virus is given, I have to add that it’s a bit of a shame that a certain Simon & Garfunkel classic didn’t make it to the soundtrack here, which would have made the film’s recapitulation all the more poetic.
Jabbaz leaves no stone unturned here in dishing out the gruesome and gory in The Sadness. I’d describe some of what occurs but it would ultimately require an even longer trigger warning, seeing as this may very well probably be this generation’s most barbaric body horror thriller to date. There is torture. There is rape. There is indiscriminate killing. And if you go into this film with incomplete readiness, there will be consequences, so don’t think about bringing your kids to the damn movie theater thinking this is just any old popcorn zombie flick. Fuck that noise.
The performances are astouding as well, and you really have to give it to the actors – most if not all probably knowing full well what they were jumping into. Both Zhu and Lei get to work in a little extra elbow grease for their individual arcs as both of their characters are forced to fend off the infected, and it helps to pay a little extra attention to take to heart what happens to both Jim and Kat along the way. Attention to detail will surely clue you in early on in just how this story will play out…at least for the most part.
The Sadness, to the say the least, is not for everyone, even if you’re the staunchest horror fan in your circle. I don’t routinely watch horror films, and I’m no lifelong horrorhound, so if what I’m saying sounds like hyperbole, sue me. All I know is that with a remake of Train To Busan inbound, Timo Tjahjanto’s got his work cut out for him, and past and future horror filmmakers or anyone thinking of emulating World War Z or I Am Legend would be wise to take notes when watching this movie.
Furthermore, if you’re brave enough to endure the visibly disturbing feats enough to observe and appreciate the overall subtext governing the events in this movie, all I can posit in this review is that if feasible, be there for those in your audience who likely weren’t ready for what they just saw. Either way, The Sadness will probably change you before leaving the theater. So…keep an eye on that shit.