Directed by: Rob Jabbaz || Produced by: Jeffrey Huang, David Barker, Wei-Chun Lu
Screenplay by: Rob Jabbaz || Starring: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei, Tzu-Chiang Wang, Emerson Tsai, Wei-Hua Lan
Music by: TZECHAR || Cinematography: Jie-Li Bai || Edited by: Rob Jabbaz || Country: Taiwan || Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien
Running Time: 100 minutes
My preferences for the agency of film protagonists depend somewhat on the genre of film in question. More proactive, forward-thinking lead characters tend to be more effective in action movies, thrillers, and crime dramas, while less assertive, more vulnerable main characters make greater sense in horror or depressing feel-bad dramas. Everything, including character details, is contextual, however, and genre hybridization complicates viewer expectations of protagonist capabilities (e.g. Sigourney Weaver’s unique arc throughout Alien  and Aliens ; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s macho deconstruction in Predator ; Neil Marshall’s eclectic characterizations in Dog Soldiers  and The Descent ). Well studied cinephiles may note that when horror, a genre most often built atop the disempowerment of its castmembers, mixes with a genre opposite in tone (e.g. action, sci-fi, crime drama, etc.), the range of “traditional” character behavior open to a screenwriter expands considerably.
One of my favorite horror-action thriller hybrids of the past couple decades is Breck Eisner’s The Crazies (2010; the remake, not the long forgotten 1973 original by George A. Romero). Not quite a zombie film, but rather a creative twist on the disease outbreak procedural (e.g. The Andromeda Strain , Contagion ), The Crazies portrays how an experimental, genetically engineered virus transforms people into homicidal maniacs. The 2010 remake has stuck with me over the years given its believable portrayal of epidemic-crazed paranoia and fluent genre combination. Characters are equal parts hunted, disempowered, and vulnerable, as well as armed, proactive, and relentless — the perfect relatable protagonists.
A film with a similar premise is Rob Jabbaz’s directorial debut, The Sadness, produced and filmed in Taiwan during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when most of the Western world was under strict lockdown. Here, a vague, naturally occurring flu-like virus named “Alvin” mutates into a pathogen that corrupts people into sadistic yet still conscious, self-aware monsters a la The Crazies; but instead of a realistic 48-hour incubation period, we have instantaneous symptom manifestation a la Train to Busan (2016) and 28 Days Later (2002, 2007; themes of infectious “Rage” make some thematic sense in those movies, I guess); instead of a tense, unpredictable narrative where our characters alternate between empowered and vulnerable states, male and female leads Berant Zhu and Regina Lei, respectively, are more or less hounded prey the entire time; and instead of a small setting that feels epic in scope, we get a dense urban backdrop that somehow feels restricted by a limited budget.
If those previous statements make it seem like The Sadness is a bad movie, then I apologize. I found the movie quite tense throughout its first half or so, yet all in all felt the execution of its bonkers premise was a missed opportunity compared to similar dystopian horror. The opening sequences pace the incoming wave of evil well, escalating from the slight apprehension that most horror movies start with before launching into the ultraviolent mayhem. The first act in particular feels like a well conceived, well choreographed nightmare with terrific stunts, realistic gore FX, and nutty foot and moped chase sequences shot on disorientating wide-angle lenses. Jabbaz and director of photography Jie-Li Bai also block some clever ambush sequences in between the louder set-pieces of carnage with long telephoto lenses, where infected stalk our main characters from the background, who tend to face camera in close-ups or medium shots.
By the time final girl Regina Lei makes it to a hospital and watches an emergency government broadcast where the Taiwanese president’s head explodes, the film’s self-seriousness starts to overwhelm everything else. The nonstop extreme torture, blood orgies, and psychotic rants become grating, as do how our few remaining normal characters sob, cry, and monologue over the ridiculous on-screen depravity a la The Walking Dead (2010-2022). The scope of the film also devolves into a generic slasher limited to a couple hospital wings while the apocalyptic tone sort of fades into the background; at the same time, Jabbaz kills off his primary antagonist (a memorable Tzu-Chiang Wang) well before the story’s conclusion and kills much of the film’s narrative momentum. How The Sadness ends on a dour note isn’t the issue, but rather the melodramatic, stilted, and unsatisfying way it reaches that ending.
The Sadness‘ biggest problem is that it runs out of gas because it can’t take full advantage of its premise, in other words. The first 50 minutes are riveting stuff, but at a certain point the endless buckets of blood and gruesome sadism become gratuitous, which is in part due to how helpless the characters feel most of the time. As vicious as 28 Days Later and The Crazies were, they both had likable enough characters with relatable agency and deeper themes to add meaning to their extreme violence; that violence, therefore, hit harder because we — or I at least — was invested in their stories’ outcomes. The Sadness can’t seem to reconcile how much of its story is about the apocalypse versus a more standard-issue slasher, and its characters aren’t strong enough to power through that narrative indecision. At some point, the arbitrary nature of who gets infected when and how starts to feel contrived and the overblown atrocities on screen lose their potency.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: On paper, The Sadness is all kinds of cinematic goodness that weirdos, gore-hounds, and genre fans should love, and the film deserves credit for writer-director Rob Jabbaz’s unfiltered, uncompromised vision. The price of that vision as presented, however, includes characters’ whose powerlessness frustrates as often as it enthralls and a ho-hum, silly ending that forgets about the epic consequences of its opening act.
—> ON THE FENCE; you’ve seen this or similar premises executed better before, The Crazies remake most all.
? Were most people getting infected via bodily fluid or airborne transmission? I don’t know because the movie doesn’t tell us.
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