In 2020 as Covid lockdowns ramped up around the world, Canadian animator Rob Jabbaz was presented with an opportunity. With SARs in recent memory, his adopted country of Taiwan locked down hard and early. This meant life continued more normally than in the rest of the world. Jabbaz was approached by a former pop star turned entrepreneur with an irresistible proposition: why don’t we make a horror film in Taiwan while the rest of the world’s film industry is shut down?
The Sadness follows Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu), a young couple who are negotiating life in an alternative Tapei that is recovering from the “Alvyn” virus. These early scenes perfectly capture the atmosphere of living in a pandemic, be it the news cycle Jim watches on his phone, the youtuber arguing with a scientist or the couple’s neighbour denying that the virus is real. It certainly felt eerie watching these scenes at one of the first in person film festivals to happen since the UK left lockdown.
Jim is in an eatery when an extremely ill looking woman enters and sadistically begins killing people. Thus the mayhem begins. Across Tapei people infected with this new strain of the virus have become slaves to their darkest desires, be they violent or sexual. The concept will obviously be compared to 28 Days Later, but is closer to the Garth Ennis comic book Crossed – an influence cited by Jabbaz.
The film was somewhat scandalous upon release in its native country, and it’s not hard to see why. Before the screening I attended, the festival organiser said he was surprised the local council had given permission for it to be screened given its level of gore and disturbing content. In one bravura sequence set on a commuter train blood hits the ceiling in the type of arterial geyser we haven’t seen since Johnny Depp was pulled into the bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street. What’s striking about the violence is the sheer cruelty of it.
The sexual element of the The Sadness undeniably adds to its transgressive atmosphere. Be warned that there are sexual assaults against all genders. The majority of these are portrayed less explicitly than the splatter, but there is one extremely gross moment that recalls a kill from A Serbian Film.
Jabbaz’s direction is fantastic. The special FX are great – special mention must go to an exploding head straight out of Scanners, and a sequence with a fire extinguisher that recalls Irreversible. The score by Tzechar is fantastic and ear shattering on a cinema screen. Whilst the narrative at points feels meandering, it came together for me in the end.
This is obviously not a film for everyone. It is not the kind of high minded fright flick that is problematically dubbed “elevated horror”. For me however, this film really scratched an itch for gore I’ve had for a long time, and is a nasty gem.
The Sadness was viewed at Frightfest London. Its Irish release date is unknown