The Sadness, (Ku Bei), was the closing film at last year’s Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival and that’s when I thought I’d see it. Instead, I started getting sick that morning and made an early exit. And for the past few months, I’ve continued hearing what an incredible film it is. And now I’ve gotten to find out if it lives up to its hype.
Jim (Berant Zhu, We are Champions, How to Train Our Dragon) and his girlfriend Kat (Regina Lei, 76 Horror Bookstore) are waking up and having an argument. He’s bailing out on their vacation trip due to a job opportunity. In the background, we hear a discussion about a new virus and its potential to mutate. We also hear others dismiss it as nothing more than the flu and outright call it a political stunt. Sound familiar?
While taking Kat to work they pass the police attending to some kind of extremely bloody fatality by the side of the road. But it’s not until after he’s dropped her off at the subway station that the real horror begins. Jim goes to a cafe for breakfast only to see a woman pours cooking oil over a man and begins ripping the burnt flesh off of his face. The Alvin Virus is not a hoax.
While not as extreme as some more mainstream reviewers would have you believe, The Sadness is an incredibly brutal and violent film. At one point a doctor compares the actual virus to the one that causes rabies so it’s not surprising that the victims become violent. But it’s more than mere bloodlust that drives those who have been infected. it’s a compulsion to commit the most sadistic acts they can think of, all with a smile on their face and a twinkle in their jet black eyes.
The Sadness is writer/director Rob Jabbaz’s first feature and he’s made a great debut, balancing well-staged gore, some genuinely tense moments, and commentary on anti-vax and COVID denial nuttery. It’s not as pointedly satirical as another Taiwanese rage zombie film, Get the Hell Out, but it does have more on its mind than just gore.
However, it’s the gore that has captured most of the attention and made The Sadness stand out among last year’s festival films. If you’ve seen Rabid, I Drink Your Blood, or either version of The Crazies then you’ll have an idea what to expect, just up the gore and sadism several notches. The Sadness was the first film in Fantasia’s 25-year run to be preceded by a trigger warning, and with good reason.
Thankfully Jabbaz avoids the two most common traps directors fall into with material like this. The Sadness actually has a script and characters you care about as well as a discernible villain in The Businessman (Tzu-Chiang Wang, The Shooting of 319, My Missing Valentine), a creep who hits on Kat in the subway and then pursues her across the city after he becomes infected.
Jabbaz also had the good sense not to go so far with the gore that it becomes comical. And he pans away from some of the more disturbing elements of torture and sexual violence that might have disgusted and alienated many viewers. You can still hear and tell what is going on, it’s just not pushed in your face. Fans of more extreme films may be unhappy about that but there’s more than enough violence for most genre fans.
And it’s against a backdrop of this violence that Jim is forced to make his way across the city to try to find Kat while she tries to stay alive and get a blinded victim to safety. There are some incredible set pieces staged along the way, including a subway car turned into a slaughterhouse, a government press conference that concludes with an exploding head, and a hospital massacre that literally made my jaw drop.
In case I haven’t made it clear by now, The Sadness is not your typical zombie gorefest. It’s not even a Fulci or Ittenbach level film. This is a relentlessly disturbing and bloody piece of filmmaking that dares you not to look away. It’s the kind of film so many extreme filmmakers try to make and fail.