Robert Jabbaz’s debut feature film, The Sadness, takes place in the midst of a pandemic. In particular, it takes place during a point in a pandemic where people have stopped worrying about mutations and have largely gone back to their normal day-to-days. Against this backdrop, young couple Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu) have planned a vacation. They begin the movie arguing over Jim needing to take on a job during the same week Kat has taken time off of work. Given where this film eventually goes, it is a somewhat banal place to begin the film.
There are many who will turn on this movie. It certainly gives you plenty of chances to turn as events in this Taiwanese city shift from sour to rancid. The sickness infecting people affects their limbic systems, making them lash out in displays of violence. As the movie progresses toward the end of its first act, things move toward violent extremes, and the action moves with it to one of two poles—cartoon-level exaggerated horror movie violence or visceral depictions of traumatic experiences. They are poles which are difficult to reconcile tonally.
The film, as is perhaps clear from the premise, was made during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and it very much is a film about how a disease can get out of hand and ravage communities if not properly taken seriously. It delivers this message like a jackhammer to the face, pulpifying the senses with excessive displays. The film does more than it needs to to make its point, and it is most effective in its first half hour when things only just start hitting the proverbial fan.
This half hour is ultimately more unsettling—less outright disturbing, sure, but better in controlling tone. The backgrounding of uncertainty—the neighbor who appears healthy one moment and sick the next, the man on the subway who looks a bit too fatigued, clammy—makes for a better horror film about pandemic life than the foregrounding of intense depravity does.
What one can say complimentary of this depraved violence is that it is well-constructed from a VFX standpoint. It appears almost entirely practical, and the team behind it should be praised for giving such exaggerated violence a tactile and visceral appearance.
As far as it works within the film, I imagine the trauma will upset many viewers. There is a level of extremity on display here which boldly rivals the “torture porn” and New French Extremity cycles. But, as is the case with many of those films, The Sadness struggles to find coherence within the mayhem. The balance between the allegory and the severity of the action is not particularly sound, and the film is ultimately more nasty than topical. This is one of those cold shower movies; you have to wash it off of you. To the extent that this is Jabbaz’s goal, he is successful.
The Sadness is screening as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs from Aug. 5 to Aug. 25.
The Sadness: C+
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