Featured image: Regina Lei as Kat in The Sadness. (Courtesy of Fantasia.)
Directed by Rob Jabbaz. Written by Rob Jabbaz. Starring Regina Lei, Berant Zhu, Tzu-Chiang Wang. Runtime 1h 38 min. The Sadness had its North American Premiere as part of the Fantasia Film Festival on Saturday, August 21.
Though set in an alternate version of Taiwan, The Sadness is a pandemic film with similar elements to our COVID-19 situation. In the film, they have the Alvin virus, which some believe to only be slightly worse than the flu. Writer Rob Jabbaz (who also directs) incorporates the ideas of the virus being a hoax, as well people politicizing it. One podcast host says, “I find it convenient it showed up during an election year.” It feels like Jabbaz has taken cues from COVID-19. However, that’s where the similarities are limited, as he completely makes The Sadness his own.
In the film, we first meet young couple Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu), getting ready for an ordinary day. However, today, after a year of living with the Alvin virus, it’s permanently mutated into something rabid. It turns everyday, fine citizens into feral sadists who give into their primal urges. In the film, Jabbaz throws every caution to the wind, creating a totally bonkers action-horror film.
It’s filled with anxiety as we watch as we never know what will happen. It’s injected with the pure insanity of each film in The Purge series (the good ones), but dialed to 11. It’s also just The Crazies on crack. The first kill we see is haunting, and a big kudos to Jabbaz for choosing this greasy first death. If you’re watching the film and you’re immediately turned off by this first kill, there’s a decent chance this won’t be for you. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The gore is heavy, making this a great choice for the Fantasia Film Festival, because this is a gory genre movie made for horror fans. Don’t let this be a first date movie, because they might run screaming. And if this is one of the horror films you watch, you might run screaming from the horror genre.
It’s just deeply unsettling and depraved, but more on that soon. There’s a lot of excessive gore. If you’re turned off by that – or your anxiety’s not ready to watch a pandemic film right now – that’s totally fair. The focus is more about the psychological effects of the virus than everything that’s teased in the beginning. That feels secondary once the horror starts. The deep, black eyes of the infected make us forget all about that, as their smiles show us they’re really enjoying every bit of this.
They’re utterly mad, and that’s what makes this so fun for those fans of gore or those who like the wilder adventures in horror. This is my kind-of film; a fast-paced horror that makes me grit my teeth and smile for the most gnarly kills. There is some sensory overload here, so the breaks from the action and horror are welcome.
About the characters themselves, Jim and Kat are likable, both played well by Berant Zhu and Regina Lei, respectively. They’re characterized largely in the opening scene, with some emotional moments sprinkled throughout the script. They help pace the film and give it its structure, as they try to reunite throughout the film, since they’re both on opposite sides of town when the action starts.
Jim’s experience is a good teaser to get our feet wet and push into the action. Kat’s experience on a Subway train is one of the highlights of the film, where it turns into a bloody Slip ‘n Slide almost. We also meet a core antagonist in this scene, the “Business Man” (Tzu-Chiang Wang), who takes a special liking to Kat when his advances on the train are rejected.
This is important, as the virus makes the infected give into violence and sex, so this is where the film is deeply unsettling. We never see sexual assault, though it’s suggested. Every time the sadistic “zombies” speak, they’re spewing profanity of what they’ll do to people. The dialogue is funny if it’s about the violence, but the perverted dialogue feels a bit much. Mind you, the excessive violence is surely the point of The Sadness and it makes total sense for the story.
The great thing about this zombie film, and a reason it didn’t always feel like a zombie film, is because it didn’t have those familiar tropes of a human hiding their infection, or a morally depraved character betrays their group to save their own life.
Nearly every human here is depraved, as Jabbaz doesn’t shy away from anything, diving completely headfirst into the darkness of human nature and our capabilities. You’ll know within the first 20 minutes if you want to stay with this film, so if that sounds like your bag and you can stomach the cruelty, dive in. The water’s bloody, but nice.
The Sadness had its North American Premiere as part of the Fantasia Film Festival on Saturday, August 21.