By Naomi Roper
When a flu virus mutates causing people to be ruled by their id and to act out their basest, most violent desires young couple in love Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu) find themselves facing hordes of violent men and women determined to cause them harm. Can they reunite before the afflicted tear them apart forever?
Written and directed by Rob Jabbaz (making his feature debut) The Sadness has exploded onto the genre festival circuit riding an incredible wave of hype that would have you believe that it’s the most violent, sexually deviant film ever made. The reviews are so OTT I was almost afraid to watch it! But in truth, The Sadness is a brilliantly savage, dark as night black comedy. It’s also a deeply romantic and deeply twisted love story as Jim races against time to try and rescue his love.
As is customary for these sorts of films the story starts oh so slowly with tiny hints that all may not be well. Jim watches youtube where a popular influencer mocks a doctor who fears that the virus has the potential to mutate into something far worse. Kat & Jim’s neighbour has an unfortunate cold. And what is going on with that old lady Jim sees from his rooftop dressed in a bloody nightgown?
But before you have much time to ponder these questions things kick off. And I mean really, really kick-off. The re-appearance of the old lady in the nightgown is the opening salvo in an insane cavalcade of violence that lasts until the final frame of the film. Strong stomachs are needed to witness the onslaught. However, as horrible as the violence is it’s also so ridiculously over the top that it becomes almost comical. Gallons and gallons of blood splash across the screen. Heads are dunked in boiling oil. Fingers are chopped off with shears. It’s spectacularly awful and utterly mesmerising and somehow darkly silly in a way that reminded me of the horror classic Braindead.
The violence reaches its peak in an extraordinary sequence where all hell breaks loose on Kat’s train to work. The eye-popping (literally) scene is brilliantly staged by Jabbaz. It’s like getting a glimpse into the depths of hell itself as the passengers start brutally murdering each other while a terrified Kat looks on horrified at the depravity surrounding her. It’s set to enter the pantheon of iconic horror sequences and I doubt we’ll see anything to match its savagery anytime soon.
Jabbaz thankfully handles the sexual violence with sensitivity. Some of the coarse language quickly becomes tiresome but very little sexual violence is actually shown (a great relief in one particularly infamous scene). In all honesty the most upsetting sequence in the entire film for me is the one where Kat is harassed by a seemingly polite stranger Tzu Chiang-Wang (credited only as “The Businessman”) who reacts exceptionally badly when Kat turns him down. I’ve been in that position countless times and it’s been awful every single time. I was angry at myself for shouting at Kat for sticking up for herself (in that situation you are always pleasant and self-deprecating and move as soon as you can because I’ve seen repeatedly how quickly pleasant comments can become ugly once the guy is rejected). That scene really hits a nerve.
Speaking of Tzu Chiang Wang he is bloody terrifying. Charismatic with tremendous screen presence he makes your blood run cold every time he appears. Easily the most terrifying screen villain in years!
Now you’re probably reading all this and going “But you said it was a comedy. Rape and murder. How is that funny Naomi? How?” And it’s not funny on the face of it but underneath all the mayhem there is a pitch-black vein of comedy. A sequence of a reassuring political broadcast descending into anarchy is really hilarious as is the deadpan reaction of “what are we supposed to do now?” uttered by a non-plussed extra. Tzu Chiang-Wang manages to be a walking nightmare while literally winking at the camera at the same time. A sequence in a maternity ward results in a truly batshit monologue delivered by an actor who goes so over the top you could see his performance from space. The infected are all cheerful grinning loons. It’s terrifying and coldly amusing all at once.
At the heart of the action are Regina Lei and Berant Zhu who both deliver heartfelt performances as the lovers trying to find their way back to each other. It’s fair to say that Kat as a character is sometimes a tad slow to act (I may have screamed “FFS move Kat” a number of times) but the actor’s performances are a total delight.
The ending sees the tragic love story reach its conclusion in a manner that somehow manages to be darker than the rest of the movie which is quite the feat.
The Sadness announces Rob Jabbaz as a significant talent to be reckoned with (the mere fact that he made this during lockdown is incredible!)
The Sadness is the feel-bad movie of the year and a savage, funny delight featuring an instantly iconic villain in Tzu Chiang-Wang
We saw The Sadness as the closing movie at Frightfest. In the UK it next plays Grimmfest.