Movie Review: The Sadness holds up a mirror to show how ugly humanity can be
Horror produces some of the strongest, most visceral metaphors for humanity’s self-destructive bent across genres. Be it to comment on our near-cannibalistic drive towards consumerism in a capitalistic society (George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) or to address harmful misconceptions about aggressive diseases that deteriorate our very bodies (David Cronenberg’s The Fly). There’s little to no contest. Horror does it better.
And yet, there are times when human behavior can be so ugly, so brutal, that metaphors might not be the adequate vehicle for getting a message across. Sometimes you need to hold a mirror up and just show the ugliness, blood and guts intact. Taiwanese horror movie The Sadness, directed by Rob Jabbaz, does exactly that to produce one of the most gut-wrenching horror experiences to date on our reactionary and selfish behavior during a pandemic. Brutal doesn’t even begin to cover the type of violence this movie manages to put on screen.
The Sadness (currently streaming on Shudder) sees Taiwan very quickly collapse under the strains of a highly contagious virus that turns the infected into ultraviolent killers unburdened by morality and possessed by a sexual rage that makes them even more repulsively dangerous. They represent an irreparable tear in the social fabric and they get plenty of opportunities to enact their darkest urges to show what total societal collapse can look like.
The story is driven by a couple living in the city as the pandemic breaks out. One of them is at home, Jim (played by Berant Zhu) and the other is at work, Kat (played by Regina Lei), just as things take a turn for the worse. Each one witnesses the different forms of violence the infected are capable of, guiding the viewer from shock to shock to build tension while also obliterating any sense of safety the characters can have as it progresses.
Fans of Avatar Press’ Crossed series (co-created by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows) will find themselves in familiar territory with The Sadness as the basic premise is pretty much the same as the comic’s. In Crossed, a pandemic breaks out that causes the infected to shed their morals and go on mass killing sprees interspersed with sexual violence. The exchange of bodily fluids created more crossed, named as such because of the red cross-shaped rash that appears on their faces. A similar thing happens in The Sadness. A change in eye color (from the original to a sickly dark red) that covers the entire eyeball separates the infected from the not infected.
Upon reading Crossed for the first time, I remember thinking that there was no way in Hell an American or even a British movie studio would ever dare adapt the comic into film. Until I’m proven wrong, The Sadness is as close as we’re getting to a Crossed movie.
Director Jabbaz’s decision to make the violence say its piece so close up to the camera, in many of the movie’s death sequences specifically, ends up playing to the story’s strengths, namely its intention to lay bare the levels of depravity people will willingly descend to if allowed. The movie is a gorehound’s dream, but it’s not exploitative or celebratory of gore for the sake of it. It’s meant to unsettle, to become a mirror of us at our worst.
The camerawork on display during the more violent sequences accentuates this. It’s structured in the service of making the audience feel repulsed by it. It differs from the Crossed comic in this regard, if only a bit. Ennis and Burrows tend to go over the top in their story for a very dark comedic effect that puts shock first and commentary second. This isn’t a knock on the comic, it’s just a difference worth pointing out.
It was also surprising to see a fair amount of restraint in the instances of sexual violence. What’s put on the screen regarding it is meant to further complicate the reflection the infected cast upon us, but it never outstays its welcome and what we get of it is focused and purposeful. Crossed is on the opposite side of the spectrum. It prefers to attack the senses by digging into all that’s horrible about the infected.
One standout performance comes from one of the infected, a business man who’s trying to flirt (very awkwardly) with the Kat character and gets infected during an intense train scene in which the infection starts spreading from passenger to passenger. The business man is played by Tzu-Chiang Wang and he represents the current strain of sexist male behavior that argues men are justified in expressing their desires towards women without fear of rejection or consequence. Men who act in accordance with this mindset view themselves as the victims of “female arrogance” and “female oppression” and thus argue that they’re being shunned or unjustly made out to be the villains.
This character ends up being one of the most malignant expressions of the virus, a stand-in for gender violence. The movie doesn’t hit viewers on the head with the message so much as it puts it front and center as a warning of how bad things can get in this particular subject if left unchecked. Other infected act accordingly, representing a behavioral fear that’s just unpleasant to think about, much less to look at.
Human cruelty and sadism have consistently proven to be some of fiction’s most powerful forms of terror. The Sadness operates like the unplugged version of these human traits. It’s a hard watch that confronts viewers with their potential to do serious social damage should certain conditions allow for it. Pair it with a reading of Crossed and you’ll find yourself having a tough time mustering even an ounce of hope for humanity.