Director: Rob Jabbaz (Taiwan). Year of Release: 2022
Taiwan, present day. A young couple, Kat and Jim, are cuddling in bed just before it’s time to get up. They’re supposed to be going on holiday the following week, but Jim may have to pull out as he’s got work on a documentary that a friend is filming. This doesn’t go down at all well with Kat who’s had to fight to get the time off, and only gets 2 weeks off a year.
In the background tv news reports talk of virus Alvin, which has not yet claimed any fatalities, but is in danger of mutating into something more dangerous. The news anchor insists that this is all a great exaggeration which is being pushed because it’s an election year. The scientist ripostes that it’s about science, not politics. Jim retreats to the balcony where his neighbour insistently tells him that the government is provoking an artificial crisis.
Jim takes Kat to the subway on the back of his moped, then goes to the local café for a take-out coffee. While he’s waiting for his order, an old woman in a white dress appears. Jim has previously briefly seen he on the rooftop, her dress stained with blood. She pours hot oil over one of the customers, then starts to chew on his intestines. Others join in, and a melee ensues.
On the train, a businessman starts talking to Kat, and remarks that she’s the only person reading a book. She politely asks him to leave her in peace. When he persists, she threatens to report him for sexual harassment. As he mutters that he was only being civil, someone takes out a knife and starts stabbing people indiscriminately. There is another melee, during which the businessman stabs the eye of the young woman sat next to Kat with his umbrella.
After a fracas with some kids on a baseball court, Jim heads home. The tv has moved to state of emergency broadcasting. Only one channel is not displaying the government approved test card – instead it’s showing an apocalyptic cartoon. Jim’s neighbour appears, wielding a pair of shears. Jun overcomes him, but not before he loses two fingers. The film has been going for about half an hour.
There’s an Agatha Christie book, where the twist of the tale is based on someone repeating the Lady Macbeth quote: “who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Someone fabricates a murder, and to provide the necessary blood, they get a pig from the local butchers’. The problem is, there’s more blood than you’d get from the average murder victim. You’re reminded of this during this film where railway carriages, cafés and hospitals are ankle-deep in blood.
This excess means that The Sadness is equal parts horror and humour. The ultraviolence doesn’t feel too much, because it doesn’t seem real. Sure, people are hacking each other to death and feasting on their victims’ innards, but none of this seems to have much to do with real life. Even the baby murdering scene appears largely off-screen and is accompanied by a half-hearted justification, that it’s to save them from encountering something worse.
So, while the violence is often gratuitous, it is rarely offensive. Which is more than can be said about the actual, and threatened, sexual violence. There are several rapes in this film, because once the virus takes root, it causes its carriers to sexually assault anyone in the vicinity. The camera does pan away from these scenes, but it is very clear what is supposed to be going on.
And while little explicit sexual violence is shown, there are a LOT of verbal sexual threats. This starts early on, when an official-sounding tannoy announcements threatens to cut off the dicks of all the men and feed it to them, while all the women (and many of the men) are to be raped. We repeatedly encounter characters who combine physical assaults with sexual threats.
We have a problem here. The film is able to make physical violence ridiculous by the sheer excess of what we are shown. But rape and sexual violence are just not funny, and I don’t think it’s possible – or desirable – for such exaggeration to turn it into a joke. You could argue that the creepy businessman scene shows that the film is on the side of The Ladies, but this really isn’t enough. The rapey scenes make you feel uncomfortable, and not in a good way.
For all this, the film is well made, and manages to do a lot from its limited budget. It manages to land some simple – if obvious – political points about the politics of viruses and people’s obsession with social media (absolutely everyone is looking at their phone all the time). I could just about separate the sexual threats from the rest of the film, and if you can do it, it’s worth a watch. But beware, I do feel parts of the film are still indefensible.