‘The Sadness’ Review: Dir. Rob Jabbaz [Best of the Fests]

Canadian filmmaker Rob Jabbaz spent 2020 in Taiwan creating his first feature film, The Sadness. The project, clearly inspired by the events of the world, was written in spring, shot in summer, and edited together in autumn, and is now touring the film festival circuit. Set in Taiwan during a pandemic, The Sadness sees the fictional Alvin virus mutate suddenly, turning all those afflicted into power mad, violent, and sex-crazed deviants. Following the new outbreak from its dramatic appearance, the story follows couple Kat (Regina Lei) and Jim (Berant Zhu) as they try to find one another amidst the madness that is taking hold around them. 

With two characters to focus in on, Jabbaz tells his story by switching back and forth between each half of the couple. This direction offers both a female and male perspective on armageddon, one that quickly highlights that it’s much easier to be a man. Jim doesn’t get off easy, he gets involved in several fights for his life and may not finish the story with all his limbs and extremities intact, but compared to the constant high-stress situations Kat finds herself in, Jim’s is the more desirable journey. Whilst Jim rides around outside on his bike, Kat is in the bowels of the subway when the madness initially begins and as she races across town in search of sanctuary she finds herself a lure to every man with ill-intent. 

Jabbaz’s ‘zombies’ are unlike anything that we’ve really experienced before. These aren’t the brain-dead hollow creatures that simply want to have a little nibble on some brain matter, but something much more menacing and intimidating. Firstly, they are still high-functioning, being capable of thought and speech. Secondly, they have no physical limitations, which means Jabbaz’s creations are the fast type of zombie, and we all know from Danny Boyle’s films how terrifying that can be. The third and worse characteristic is that the virus has essentially flipped their humanity switch, targeting the limbic system to stimulate aggression and libido to create an army of sadistic maniacs with a strong taste for humping everything and anything that crosses their paths. The Sadness houses one of the most depraved iterations of the classic idea of a zombie; occasionally the actions on display are extreme and viewers should be forewarned about trigger warnings for almost everything that needs one. 

Playing as part of Fantasia, The Sadness will also close out this summer’s Arrow Video FrightFest event. It’s a curious choice of an end movie as it really isn’t a whole lot of fun as Jabbaz challenges the viewer’s endurance, throwing at the screen every twisted and depraved act that can be imagined and sticking them all in one film. The levels of sexual violence contained within The Sadness are a lot to take, even the most hardened audience member may find themselves squirming from time to time. Unlike in a film like Irreversible or I Spit on Your Grave, the assaults are not limited to just one instance, but they also are not the central point of the story. Jabbaz’s new world is so rife with the act that it mainly plays out in the background. This doesn’t dilute the impact of what is happening, but does at least allow some breathing room. To get an idea of how intrinsic to the environment it is, even the cartoons of the television set that Jim passes depict rape.

With all this sexual violence on display, and with the majority of the monsters preying on females, The Sadness doesn’t feel especially female friendly. Early on there’s a tannoy announcement stating that ladies will “be f*cked by dogs in the street” – not the most pleasant of words for either gender to hear, but especially so if you identify as female. And yet through all the endless threats and torment, Jabbaz does present an accurate reflection of the life of someone living with having survived a sexual assault. For many survivors their attacker is an ever present feature of their lives, either mentally or physically and Jabbaz explores this phenomena through the character of Kat. Kat herself goes through awful ordeal after awful ordeal, all whilst having her initial attacker following her. The old businessman in question was previously fixated on Kat and now his lack of conscience gives him free rein to act upon his thoughts. His constant and unwavering hunting of Kat works as a metaphor for survivors of trauma and the fact that their tormentors are always there, lurking just out of frame.

Not quite shock for shock’s sake, although it comes close, Jabbaz is clearly using his feature debut to make comments on the pandemic and its handling by government officials. There’s an eerie familiarity to the early pre-mutation moments, the news filled with contrasting information, people refuting science in favour of something they heard or read online, and a political party who leave things until it’s far too late to do any good. Outside of that Jabbaz also uses his work to scrutinize mankind’s place in the world, casting a stark light on the true toxicity of masculinity. In this work, man is the literal virus, but nonetheless, excuses are made for the behaviour of those with the disease. Within the film it makes sense for characters to explain that the masses cannot control themselves, and therefore shouldn’t be held accountable, which is all too familiar an argument used to gloss over a multitude of sins in the real world. For example, an elderly relative who makes a racist or sexist remark is often excused with a ‘it was a different time’ or ‘they don’t know any better’. It’s a shocking and thought-provoking way of exploring our own society’s’ failings in the treatment of one another, but a strong resolve will be needed to make it all the way through to the end credits as The Sadness is an exceptionally bleak film, filled with the vilest of humanity. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This review was first published on THN.