This ultra-violent take on a zombie film brings energy but still struggles with the formula and pacing of the subgenre it sits in.
Synopsis: After a year of combating a pandemic with relatively benign symptoms, a frustrated nation finally lets its guard down. This is when the virus spontaneously mutates, giving rise to a mind-altering plague. The streets erupt into violence and depravity, as those infected are driven to enact the most cruel and ghastly things they can think of. Murder, torture, rape and mutilation are only the beginning. A young couple is pushed to the limits of sanity as they try to reunite amid the chaos. The age of civility and order is no more. There is only “The Sadness”.
It seemed that in the initial spread of COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns, some people sought out pandemic-themed media, resulting in films like Contagion experiencing a strange resurgence. As the time has worn on and with many countries still experiencing the effects, I’m not sure pandemic media is as easy a sell now. The Sadness is set in Taiwan, a country that experienced competent handling of the pandemic, so the film is not seeking to reflect the current society, but rather a warped, ‘othered’ version.
Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) are a young couple and while they have a few issues, their relationship is a reasonably happy one. They have weathered a recent pandemic and life appears to be returning to normal. However, one day, when Kat heads to work, a strange mutation surfaces, turning normal people into ultra violent, often sexually motivated attackers. Separated and desperate to find one another, the pair struggle through the chaos.
Zombie film and television and perhaps more specifically and repeatedly, The Walking Dead has long established a formula. We meet our survivors of whatever terrible thing has befallen the world, watch them form uneasy alliances, find a safe space that ends up compromised and end up moving on, sans a few team members. It is this format that weighs heavily on The Sadness and if it is one that you are tired of, this will not sway you, turning into a succession of snapshots of depravity rather than anything more meaningful.
The Sadness enhances the lull in action presented by its format arguably because its bigger action-horror sequences are so frenetic. A sedate opening 15 minutes is ruptured by a burst of bloody violence (and impressive effects work) before calming again for a while, saving itself for the next eruption. A sequence set on a train is the film’s most striking set piece, relishing in the intensity of violence. More than that, there is a focus on smaller, unpleasant details like the amount of blood on the floor starting to squeak under passenger shoes. The pattern does end up feeling like characters are stumbling into scenes of chaos in which there are regular attempts to shock and hint at the worst acts.
The gendered experiences of the characters are interesting and splitting the characters up allows for that exploration further than if they were together. It also allows for Kat to find Molly (In-Ru Chen), another woman trying to make her way through the chaos. The type of threats may be similar but the way they manifest are different. Some of the pandemic response, including a scene of government bluster (an example of the alternate Taiwan represented in the film) works well enough, adding to the sense of chaos.
Much has been made of the need for trigger warnings and yes, this is violent and does include scenes of sexual violence too, which people should be aware of before going in. However, and this is not intended to be me being blasé about the content here as some is genuinely harrowing, it lacks a sense of transgression and was a little lacking in lasting impact. In similar ways, it doesn’t feel like it exploits the nastier elements too much, with director Rob Jabbaz knowing when to move away and leave the grisly details to audience imagination via the reactions of those witnessing it. A lengthy scene involving a doctor pontificating on the origins and outcomes of the virus overstays its welcome in its earnestness and likely represents the film’s most blatant attempt to shock, even if the background whiteboard with “we’re all fucked” scrawled on it maintains something of the earlier irreverence.
Impactful but uneven, The Sadness will please those looking for short, sharp shocks.
2.5 out of 5 stars
The Sadness played at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 21st.