The Sadness (2021) at Fantasia

The Sadness has had its North American première at Fantasia 2021

New outbreaks of the undead have been infecting cinemas across the world for the last two decades, and even if Taiwan ought, as an island state, to be relatively protected, it has not proven wholly immune – perhaps as a sign of a politically contested nation beleaguered, both internally and externally, by the claims of China. On the contrary, Taiwanese cinema has been rife with zombies, from Joe Chien’s diptych of  Z-108 qi cheng (aka Call of the Undead, 2012) and Zombie Fight Club (2014) to I.-Fan Wang’s more recent Get The Hell Out (2020). Now Canadian-born writer/director Rob Jabbaz’s feature debut The Sadness takes ingredients from those films’ local blend of extreme gore, sexual perversion and political satire, and allows all these to hybridise with a different, if related, strain of genre cinema, and with a very contemporary set of anxieties. 

Kat (Regina) and Jim (Berant Zhu) wake up in one another’s embrace. They are a sweet couple, very much in love, even if there are certain tensions and resentments simmering in their relationship. After they bicker mildly about Jim’s lack of reliable employment, Kat’s need for a holiday and their difficulty in finding time to spend together, Jim watches a news programme on which a much more aggressive argument is unfolding, as a virologist insists, amid ridicule from the show’s anchor, that the pandemic ‘Alvin virus’ which politicians claim is little more than a mild flu in fact contains dormant protein chains that resemble rabies, and could easily mutate at any moment. That moment will come very soon, as within hours, much of the population of Taipei has succumbed to a rapidly spreading illness that drives its sufferers into cruel orgies of sex and violence. As Kat and Jim, now separated, struggle both to survive and to be reunited, ids will out, and the two lovers will bear witness to every pillar of civilisation collapsing viciously into uncensored, animalistic instinct.

While The Sadness certainly draws on the deadly contagion – and the famously bleak ending – of George A. Romero’s pioneering zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968), the specific symptoms shown by these manic, appetitive, pink-eyed patients – who can run, and talk, and are even aware of the outrages that they compulsively commit – are more reminiscent of Romero’s later The Crazies (1973), as well as other films under its maddening influence like Graham Baker’s Impulse (1984), David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry’s The Signal (2007), and Breck Eisner’s remake The Crazies (2010). Surrounded by such mad pandemonium, soon even the uninfected become hard to distinguish in their behaviour from the ‘crazies’, not least because everyone here, in extremis, must call upon the same primal responses. 

“Maybe they’re crying because they feel guilty,” suggests the virologist Dr A. Wong near the end of The Sadness, in an apparent explanation of the film’s title. “The virus leaves virtually every brain function intact.” The truth is that these rampaging, utterly unrestrained seekers of sadistic pleasure are too busy exulting, taunting and grinning their way through excessive acts of rape and torture, mutilation and murder, for there to be much room left for remorse. They are certainly not like the wailing, bewildered infected from Johnny Martin’s Alone (aka Final Days, 2020), mortified by what they themselves cannot help doing. Rather the sadness of Jabbaz’s film rests in the immense loss – of decency, of empathy, of humanity – that we witness unfolding over the space of its single day. This truly is a film that economically encapsulates not only the conspiratorial mob rule and nasty appetitive id-iocy of the Trumpian age, and all the panic, paranoia and emotional apocalypse of the Covid era, but also a very specific Taiwanese fear of brutal takeover from without and within – and while few tears may be seen falling in the film, needless to say there are generous outpourings of blood and gore, as all human experience is reduced to a basic carnal depravity. The infected here live – and die – with a rictus smile on their face, while the sadness is all ours.

strap: In Rob Jabbaz’s gory psychodrama, pandemic reduces Taipei to appetitive, orgiastic, id-driven madness, and humanity to its basest instincts.

© Anton Bitel