starring Regina Lei, Tzu-Chiang Wang, Berant Zhu
written and directed by Rob Jabbaz
by Walter Chaw Canadian expat Rob Jabbaz has had it. His hyphenate debut The Sadness is one of the bleakest, angriest films I've seen in a long time, made rarer still by being carried off with obvious chops. Its focus is to unequivocally cut through the bullshit of this, our shitty timeline. The first real conversation of the film is between our hero, Jun (Berant Zhu), and his neighbour across adjoining balconies, concerning how a virus causing some doctors concern is a hoax perpetrated by big business and the media. A talk-show host in the background speaks over a virologist who warns of the potentially world-ending evil of politicizing a pandemic, and...well, you get the picture. The scariest thing about The Sadness--a very scary picture--is that it's the product of a Canadian filmmaker working in Taiwan, which confirms that Trump is a symptom not the cause of whatever the good fuck is wrong with us. In my darker moments, I like to say that we're just monkeys in clothes, and every minute we're not killing each other over protein and access to women is a miracle. The premise of The Sadness is a thought exercise in ironic magnification, one where you make the point by exaggerating the scenario slightly. The premise of The Sadness is that we're all monkeys in clothes, and imagine if we stopped pretending that we aren't.
It's telling that the title of this movie doesn't have anything to do with rage or purging, but rather this overall feeling of despair that the evil stalking us is the evil in our hearts. There's ultimately nowhere to hide from what seems to be our inevitable self-immolation. More 28 Days Later... (and its superior sequel, 28 Weeks Later) than in the Romero tradition, The Sadness tells of a virus that turns people into homicidal maniacs. You can tell because their eyes turn black, they start doing unspeakable things to other people, and, you know, they seem happy. An hour into the film, the President gets in front of a camera from his bunker to make a speech, and there's some Dr. Strangelove stuff about how genuinely feckless our politicians have proven themselves to be in the face of existential threats to our existence. But the keystone moment comes right before the speech, when our heroine, Kat (Regina Lei), borrows a young security guard's phone, only to be confronted with a screen full of sad hentai. That's the bad guy: desperation, incels, a culture of objectification and frustrated gratification for men who feel entitled to access. The creep on the train, a middle-aged businessman (Wang Tzu-chiang) trying to chat Kat up while she's reading a book and then complaining about how he doesn't deserve to be treated this way. He tells her the country's changed irrevocably, and then he gets the virus, though he was sick all along.
That's the horror at the centre of The Sadness--and the sadness, too, as it happens. How badly we've underestimated the danger of allowing the disenfranchised the ability to influence so broadly and indiscriminately--a legion of Jim Joneses and Charlie Mansons allowed to build families across world-spanning networks of unpoliced space. People blaming the media for violence never consider how Stalin wasn't playing "Call of Duty" before murdering twenty million of his people: we're born rotten, but the worst of us didn't always have the means of spreading our contagion this easily, this far. Hundreds of thousands of people will die in this country from a preventable virus because of the leveraging of hate and the disinformation spread by a few pathetic losers who didn't get the access they desired to protein and sex, and so now the world needs to burn. When feelings overrule your perception of what is real, how far removed are we, really, from a "virus" that is an invitation to do whatever you want to other people in the name of personal freedom?
So The Sadness presents humans unromanticized. Given the opportunity, the men rape the women and each other. One act of sexual violence depicted is so vile, it became the central topic of a film a few years back, but here, it's one in a litany of atrocities. Better than the excess, though, is a scene where Kat is forced to strip and shower in chemical disinfectant while a virologist, by all accounts a hero in this film, peeps her nakedness in the reflection of a metal surface. We're all peeping. We're all animals. It's not the behaviour of the infected that's monstrous (they're infected), it's the behaviour of the uninfected I was watching through my fingers. Jabbaz knows what he's doing. The Sadness is not just--although it is very ably--a hyper-gory action flick packed with indelible images and sticky ideas. Nor is it just a love story that, in the end, pays off the relationship tension between Jun and Kat in a way that made me feel like I haven't felt since the betrayal in The Descent. No, it's a lot more than that. It's a study of how thin the skin is that separates the meat from the fire. The Sadness isn't subtle by any stretch of the imagination, and at this point, frankly, it shouldn't be. Over the past five years, I've lost my love of this country, my trust in most other people, and really any hope that we'll ever pull out of this exploitative death spiral. The Sadness never spends any time in that gap between extremity and sad prophecy: it's a documentary already; the time for warnings has passed.