Updated: May 4, 2022
This is a translation of Pedro's original Portuguese-language review of The Sadness on Fala Visual.
In recent years, some of the most original and important horror cinema has come from southeast Asia. Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar’s Impetigore (2020) and Thai filmmaker Banjong Pisanthanakun’s The Medium (2021) are two of the best examples of recent success. Now comes Robert Jabbaz’s Taiwanese film, 2021 Fantastic Fest Best Picture winner The Sadness, which enters the same V.I.P. club.
What do Impetigore, The Medium and The Sadness have in common? Actually very little. Impetigore is a folk horror, The Medium is a found-footage with supernatural elements, and The Sadness is a zombie movie (okay, infection movie – I don’t want to offend any purists). However, there is something poetically raw and visceral about all of them, something tense and unique that makes audiences shiver that few other films are able to achieve. It’s something that Hollywood is still struggling to find again, focusing nowadays more on the so-called “elevated horror," which I also appreciate, but for different reasons.
Just by being a zombie movie – or, infection movie – The Sadness follows some of the unwritten rules of the sub-genre: a quality-defining introduction of characters (the calm before the storm), the emotional exposition of a select few (in this case, a young couple, separated in the city), then, the pointless and borderline comical governmental action. And, last but not least, the panic and chaos in the streets. This is all we’ve come to expect from the subgenre, but The Sadness also manages to subvert.
Through the spread of a virus that in a lot of ways resembles the spread of COVID-19, people infected by other people through the air (in this world, you don't need to be bitten), start to experience both a lust for violence and a crazy sexual appetite. The film makes a point of explaining later how both drives are related within the brain and why they are affected in parallel. Before even learning about the mutation of the virus, society is already divided into two groups: those who really care about isolating the new virus vs. those who doubt that this virus is more than a simple flu, aligning the panic with political interests. Does that dynamic ring a bell?
The social components of the film are where we see more of George A. Romero – the father of the genre – and his influence. The "zombies" don't walk slowly like in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series, but what Jabbaz gives us is a natural evolution of the genre. Society's inherent misogyny – which escalates when the inhibitors of violence and social empathy wear off – is visible from very early on. Even before being infected, a character is shown sexually harassing a woman on the subway, although he victimizes himself and blames the world that does not allow him to be authentically himself.
In addition to strongly satirizing the politicization of everyday matters, the film also addresses people’s use of technology and the role of the media. Jabbaz confronts the tendency of the news to equalize sides and perspectives that are not remotely the same and give primacy to entertainment over fact. In more classic horror fashion, the film addresses some excesses of the scientific community, questioning whether harmful measures should be put in place in the name of progress. It’s a lot to say in a film that, superficially, just wants to portray sadistic violence.
And it does certainly do that! Nobody watches a movie of this genre expecting to see cute flowers and rainbows. But the level of gore in The Sadness is among the most disgusting and visceral I've ever seen. Jabbaz shocks with every kill and he knows it. It breaks many gender pacts – rape and violence against children included – ensuring that it will shock western minds who will despise it, preferring to criticize a potential lack of narrative elements (as if that would ever be the engine of a chaotic society with no rules). Make no mistake: if a similar situation were to occur, it would be like this. Or worse.
The whole gruesome spectacle is shown by way of excellent practical effects. There are several scenes that will linger in my memory forever, from an incredible government announcement-turned-massacre to the dragging of meters-long intestines across the floor, with considerable rewatchability for the strongest stomachs. In the direction department, Jabbaz proves (remarkably, as this is his debut), that he knows how to film action and create an imminent sense of claustrophobia that puts his audience right at the center of the action.
Imagine a distant relative of Train to Busan (2016), but rawer and less sentimental. The plot of The Sadness is not the most important element; it’s the panic and the despair of an ultra-violent world, with all the blood and guts to which we are entitled. Even if those infected are rather speedy, references to Romero’s films are in every corner. The Sadness is among the best the genre has provided in the last decade.
The Sadness will begin streaming on Shudder on May 12.