Content Warning: The Sadness features sexual assault and rape
I can stand a lot of gore and a lot of violence. But when Fantasia Fest 2021 listed trigger warnings on the film page for The Sadness, it wasn’t joking. When a film has “Fantasia rarely gives trigger warnings, but this film warrants all of them. Proceed with caution,” attached to it, you have to brace yourself. In short, The Sadness slowly builds to madness in its opening, but when it gets there, it stays and drives deeper and deeper into darkness and violence with gallons of blood lining its path.
A Taiwanese film, The Sadness is directed and written by Rob Jabbaz and stars Regina Lei, Tzu-Chiang Wang, and Berant Zhu. If I had to describe the film quickly, it’s Mayhem mixed with 28 Weeks Later, but so much more brutal than both of them combined. So much so, it took everything I had to watch it all in one sitting because even when you look away, the sound of skin tearing, bones breaking, and blood spewing doesn’t let you escape the terror.
In The Sadness, we see an alternate version of Taiwan where an epidemic has spread with mostly benign symptoms. But when the citizens and government let their guard down, the virus mutates. Similar to rabies, this take on a rage virus begins to break down the country. The infected are unable to control their basal instincts, acting on every primal impulse, resulting in a lot of violence, blood, and sex. The Sadness is an absolute slaughterhouse for the former, taking enclosed spaces and using them to their full potential for mayhem. A restaurant, a hospital hallway, and a train car are all devoured by ultra-violence. Everything becomes a weapon. Bodies are pulled apart, weaponized, maimed, and any other terrible thing you can think of. Additionally, it must be noted the film features scenes of sexual violence. While the camera pans away, the screams and reactions don’t do much to hide the vile actions.
In all the sick and twisted set pieces and human moments that turn monstrous, there is a story that works. While the infection and the violence are centerstage, The Sadness is pushed forward by its leads Regina Lei and Berant Zhu, who play a couple separated across the city and desperate to find each other again. At the same time, the world goes to Hell around them. While we get to see the world through their perspectives, it’s Kat, played by Lei, who is the film’s strongest character and the one who works to showcase the world. She faces harrowing circumstances, fights back, and keeps pushing to survive as she is pushed to the edge at every turn. Lei gives a great performance filled with both fear and defiance in the face of the infection and the violence it brings. She even offers compassion in moments where it would be easy just to run. In fact, Kat is a dynamic character and the only reason I didn’t stop watching the film –despite my queasy stomach.
For his part, though, Tzu-Chiang Wang is a specter of violence and a silent intimidating force as an unnamed Businessman. He perpetrates some of the worst violence in the film and chases Kat. He is scarier than the virus and scarier than what is happening around him. The way the Businessman revels in his harm is terrifying. In fact, the ultra-violence in The Sadness is pushed past the brink of just gore because of the “fun” the infected are having. Their smiles and their laughter are all too much to handle.
There are elements of The Sadness that pay direct homage to infection films that came before in the film’s opening as we slowly settle into a pandemic landscape. But once Jabbaz flips on the switch, the moments to catch your breath are few and far between before he rips the rug out from under you again. The shocking elements of the film are just that, and while they offer little narrative value, they work to build a transgressive film that is sure to make some people tap out of their viewing.
To pull this off, the effects work on the film had to be over the top without falling into absurdity. You see, absurd violence isn’t scary or unsettling. With buckets of blood, faces being peeled off, brains being eaten, and umbrellas pulling out eyes, all of this could have been comedic. That said, none of it is; all of it is meant to hurt the viewer and push them out of any sense of comfort.
There is no mercy in The Sadness. The film is shocking, mean, and as bleak as can be. It’s stunningly graphic, and I can’t say I’ve watched a film that has made me more unbearably uncomfortable. From the sexual violence to the mutilation and the unrelenting push of sound that offers no escape even if you turn your head, The Sadness is something I can’t recommend to people. That said, that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t succeed in its goal. In fact, I genuinely wish I had never watched it. But even with my inability to score this film, Jabbaz does exactly what he wanted to do. He delivers a viscerally unsettling onslaught of ultra-violence with a good story nestled within it. And if that’s your jam, this one should be top on your list.