Fantasia 2021 Review: THE SADNESS, Topical Transgressive Terror From Taiwan
Already one of the most controversial genre films of 2021, Rob Jabbaz's Taiwanese political gorefest The Sadness is destined to divide audiences around the world with its extreme violence and no-holds-barred take on the disastrous -- and entirely avoidable -- mishandling of a viral pandemic.
The Sadness sees Taiwan ready to wrest itself free from the grips of a viral pandemic that had kept its citizens mostly isolated for quite a while. However, just as things seems to be getting back to normal, the Alvin virus once again rears its ugly head, with unforeseen and catastrophic consequences.
Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina) are a young, good looking couple doing the best they can, and even though Jim botched their upcoming holiday, they are very much in love, even if his misstep has Kat in a pretty crappy mood. After Kat goes off to work, Jim makes his way down to the local cafe to get a cup of coffee and commiserate with his friend, but when a sick old woman shows up and violently attacks the cook with a fryer full of boiling oil, all hell breaks loose, leading to an 80-minute assault on good taste as Alvin runs rampant through the city. All Jim wants to is get across town and whisk Kat away to safety, but he has no idea of the horrors he'll have to endure to make that happen.
There's no sugar-coating The Sadness, it is an absolutely brutal film that seems expressly constructed to shock and offend. With a kinetic force that rarely allows the audience to slow down and gather its thoughts about the bloody mayhem spilling from every frame, The Sadness is anything but subtle, which is both a blessing and it's biggest drawback.
As Jim charges across the city to reconnect with his beloved, he's constantly confronted with human suffering on an epic scale. Men assault one another seemingly out of the blue, gang violence and torture are the norm, sadism and masochism approach apex cruelty at every turn, but there's something not quite right about all of it. There is a kind of subtle acceptance of the inevitability of this breakdown of social mores, as though this carnage was what we were bound for all along.
Kat's attempt to escape the violence encounters similar roadblocks. From her initial exposure in the terrifyingly closed quarters of a subway car, to her attempt to shepherd an innocent who'd been violently enucleated to find medical help, she sees the absolute worst of what is becoming a pale shadow of civilized humanity. It's each fiend for themselves in this world, and she doesn't know how to handle that, even as she's being stalked by what looks like a zombie, but feels a bit too cognizant and intentional to dismiss so easily.
It would be easy to dismiss The Sadness as little more than a gorehound friendly endurance trial, lord knows I've done that on more than one occasions when the film warranted it. The problem with that kind of dismissal is that The Sadness actually has a lot to say, it's just that most of its political commentary is drenched is blood and other bodily fluids.
Those with a predilection to trauma response at depictions of sexual assault might want to be careful with this one, nothing approaches the level of Noe's Irreversible, but as fleeting as the images might be, they do still exist. Though in the context of the film, it's definitely debatable whether some of the characters experiencing those assaults are complicit or not, which sounds awful, but Jabbaz didn't put them in there for no reason, and explanation here might actually constitute the kind of spoiler that gets film fans in a tizzy.
There is nothing quite like The Sadness this year, a year -- nay -- a decade in which politicized horror has come out of the shadows to plant its flag in the ground and declare itself proudly. When Srđan Spasojević's A Serbian Film hit the festival circuit over a decade ago, he and it were vilified as exploitative hucksters, in spite of the political context in which the film existed. It even managed to get Sitges chair Angel Sala jailed for a time, but regardless of the reaction, it was still politically relevant.
The Sadness breaks many taboos -- and act which may soon become illegal thanks to an authoritarian government attempting to regulate subversive art in Taiwan -- but it doesn't go in the same exact directions as A Serbian Film, however that doesn't mean it's any less relevant. If I have any concerns it is that the film feels the need to explain itself a bit too explicitly in the final reel in a way that makes me wonder if Jabbaz didn't trust his audience to pick up on his very obvious subtext. But that's a very small complaint in the face of a tremendously entertaining and pertinent bit of exploitation cinema that's bound to rile up exactly the audience who needs it.
Fuck. I loved this movie.
- Rob Jabbaz
- Rob Jabbaz
- Tzu-Chiang Wang
- Berant Zhu