By: Brendan Graham
Graphic Content Warning: The subject matter of this film may be incredibly distressing and upsetting, especially with the recent violent events in our country, and the ongoing pandemic. Reader and viewer discretion is advised.
Horror fans have some morbid curiosities. We often wonder what nightmarish situations would be like, and we do find enjoyment in watching them play out; from serial killers toying with their victims, to hordes of zombies eating people alive, to society turning against one another, and hunting each other down. We’ve found ourselves wondering what the absolute worst humanity has to offer would look like, and let me tell you, you’re about to experience some horrific things when you sit down to experience THE SADNESS.
One quiet morning in Taipei, a young couple is waking up to start their day. Jim (Berant Zhu) is a young man who is trying to find work around the city, and always wakes up before the alarm to make sure his girlfriend Kat (Regina Lei) is on time for work. While life is going on, as usual, there are mumblings about the "Alvin Virus" floating around, and how doctors are concerned that it could mutate and become a much worse pandemic, although no one takes it seriously (sound familiar?). This particular morning, something feels, well, off. When Jim sees an older woman with a bloody nightgown on the roof of her apartment building, he calls out to help her, but when he turns around, she’s gone. On the way to dropping Kat off at the train station, they pass by a brutal murder, and the cops trying to shove the culprit into their car - but when Jim passes by on the way home, everyone is gone.
Things get creepier from there for both Jim and Kat, as they start their days in different ways. Kat is on the train reading when an older gentleman (known as Businessman, Tzu-Chiang Wang) starts to harass her, because she’s pretty and pouts when she turns him down. Jim goes to a cafe to get a cup of coffee when the older woman from earlier wanders in, and begins this bloodbath by attacking the barista with a vat of boiling fry oil and, well, it gets quite messy.
Soon enough, people’s eyes are turning black, and they begin attacking, murdering, and violating one another: neighbors, families, friends, you name it. The violence is extreme and spreads quickly, and Jim is immediately chased back home by an army of these depraved, sadistic killers. Meanwhile, on the train, Kat is about to have her own encounter, which is probably one of the bloodiest sequences I’ve seen on film in a long time. As the violence spreads, Jim has now made it his mission to find Kat and rescue her, before the city tears them apart - literally.
You’ve probably heard a lot about the violence in this film, and I am here to confirm that this is probably one of the more disturbing, depraved, and violent horror films that I’ve seen in a long while (while not going down the disturbing movie iceberg of course). Characters of all ages are brutally tortured, mutilated, violated, and psychologically harmed, although thankfully the violence against children is only mentioned and hinted at. Once the main plot kicks in, there are very few opportunities to rest in between intense sequences of gore and incredibly vulgar dialogue.
A word of warning, a lot of the violence is quite sexual in nature, and so is the dialogue. There are many moments that I could talk about, but I don’t want to spoil them or get into great detail here, but it involves an eyeball socket. No, not the first incident on the train, I’m talking about the hospital. You’ll know the scene when you get there. You’ve been warned. Over time, however, I do feel like in a terrible way, we get desensitized to the violence a bit, and it becomes repetitive, but still manages to be exciting and oddly entertaining in its own way. Even all of the violence we don’t see that happens off-screen, you can hear it, and it will haunt you.
The film is well made, and looks fantastic. The cinematography is spectacular, and the camera work (even during chase sequences) is superb. The color toning on the film with the sickening green hue adds an additional queasy feeling to the violence we are seeing. The cast handles not only the disturbing violence with ease, but the dialogue rolls off their tongues quite realistically (even when it can come off as over the top and silly). The Businessman steals the show in every scene he’s in, becoming the film's main antagonist for a good chunk of the runtime. He may have been a bit of a creep before he got infected, but he effortlessly switches into a diabolical monster that deep down has been harboring these unnatural urges that the virus has allowed him to tap into, guilt-free.
There’s an interesting comparison to America’s reaction to COVID-19 here, director Rob Jabbaz (Canadian filmmaker living in Taiwan) mentioned that in order for the film to work, he based it on Americans, and their distrust of the government, as Taiwan had a much more logical reaction to the lockdown there. Without going too political here, it is scary how much of our situation you can see in this scenario, and how it plays out.
THE SADNESS is an incredibly difficult movie to write about and describe. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but I also want viewers to feel prepared. I want to discuss the violence more in detail and the levels of sexual violence that may turn viewers off, but without getting too graphic in my own review. I think the best way to decide if you can handle THE SADNESS is to watch the Red Band trailer (which does feature some graphic imagery), and see if you can handle it. Proceed with caution if you’re easily squeamish, because this movie gets gnarly and definitely earned its trigger warning at Fantasia Fest. This film features gore, cannibalism, sexual abuse, necrophilia, and other distressing and extreme topics (such as infanticide). If that hasn’t scared you away, sit back and hold on for one of the most intense horror experiences in the past few years. THE SADNESS delivers.
THE SADNESS is currently available to stream on SHUDDER.