“In ‘The Sadness’ the fear is not—as Hitchcock might have asserted—what is unseen, but what can be endured.”
Content warning: graphic descriptions of physical and sexual violence, gore, language
In my last Brooklyn Horror Film Festival review of Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna, I wrote about how my glasses broke. Tonight, at the screening of the festival’s closing night centerpiece The Sadness (dir. Rob Jabbaz), I wish they had. All signs pointed to a truly wrought experience: a content warning for “extreme violence,” a trailer that features a geyser of blood coating every square inch of a subway car, and a lead programmer describing it as “one of the most transgressive, in-your-face horror films to come out in recent memory.” To say I was warned is frankly an overstatement, as the blend of sexual sadism, unflinching camera work, and nauseating special effects put on display in The Sadness amounts to a film so horrific to watch that it brought me to the verge of tears.
While a zombie and contagion film in its most reductionist classification, The Sadness departs from the realm of Romero-style shuffling decay to introduce a new type of monster: the zombie-sadist, infected by a virus (charmingly called Alvin) that produces an atavistic desire to commit violence. The images are depraved: depictions of gang torture, blood-soaked orgies, melting skin, and baby carriages full of viscera. Like a dog with its nose shoved in its own feces for the pleasure of humiliating punishment, Jabbaz grabs the viewer by the scruff and holds them to the bacchanalia: no death is spared the camera, for in The Sadness the fear is not—as Hitchcock might have asserted—what is unseen, but what can be endured. The film must be commended for this uniquely terrifying, fully committed approach: every bite and stab and hack makes a tangible impression on the skin, every shockingly sentient zombie’s vulgar threat of genital dismemberment cuts like a personal affront. With such graphic and unequivocal violent turns, each one escalating the deviance of the last, The Sadness transmits its sickening choreography directly into the viewer’s body, gasping in horror, hands over mouth.
Of course, the festival programmer who introduced the film made overtures to its “ultraviolence,” but what about what he called its “terrifying timeliness”? The film, after all, revolves around the spread of a mysterious viral contagion, the response to which is hampered by government indifference, hoax theorizing, and head-in-the-sand denial. Because the film’s horror is amplified by the viewer’s ability to empathize with such unprecedented times, its relationship to the COVID-19 pandemic is one worth exploring. Most frequently, the film hits on a groaningly didactic note: a doctor (Lan Wei-Hua) drifts into eulogy for a besieged society (“Everything must be politicized. There can no longer be truth.”) as if the viewer doesn’t already have firsthand experience of such a reality.
Where the film’s true transgression lies is not in this punching-up nor in its buckets of blood, but in its treatment of the contagion’s victims. Take the sweet but cynical neighbor of the film’s protagonists Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei): initially dismissing Alvin as a hoax, he becomes one of its first victims. His character incarnates our own reality that when people do not believe in COVID, they often die, and it’s sad. At its best, the film’s relationship to the pandemic offers a critique of elite ineptitude and the price paid by those on the ground. Somewhere in the middle, it poses contagion as a vehicle for societal violence, spreading metaphorically like an airborne bloodlust. But at its worst, it demonizes (almost literally) an all-too-real lethal skepticism whose wound still festers. Most likely, it does all three: looking, if one can, through the puddles of intestines, The Sadness problematizes the public’s relationship to COVID as a social and media phenomenon in a manner far more serious and provocative than other entries in the “COVID film” genre. More of these films are coming down the pipe, but the thought-provoking, heart-stopping brutality of The Sadness certainly makes it an early standout.
Dir: Rob Jabbaz
Prod: David Barker, Eunice Cheng, Li-Cheng Huang
Cast: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei, Lan Wei-Hua
Release Date: 22nd January, 2021 (Taiwan)
Available: Theatrical release