Fantasia 2021: THE SADNESS — Transgressive Touchstone for 2020

In the late 80’s/early 90’s there was a classification, or rating if you will, in Hong Kong called Category III. These were films that “No persons younger than 18 years of age were permitted to rent, purchase, or watch in the cinema.” While of course soft-core porn usually fell under this umbrella, so did some of the more notable in Chinese transgressive Cinema — The Untold Story, Ebola Syndrome, and Men Behind the Sun. These were films that trafficked in not only extreme visuals, but sometimes paired them with some extreme ideas as well. The Sadness carries on that tradition thanks to director Rob Jabbaz, a Canadian filmmaker based in Taiwan who gives us his view of how this pandemic played out, with zombies as the metaphor.

The Sadness is COVID-19 told through the prism of a rage zombie narrative, using its genre trappings to get away with some rather poignant observations on the government mishandling of the pandemic. The narrative in itself is the story of Kat (Regina) and Jim (Berant Zhu) a young couple who after separating to go about their day to day, find themselves trapped in pre-apocalyptic world where normal people are infected and turn into rage killing/raping murderers. The couple then spend the rest of the film trying to reunite as they battle their way through the city, trying to survive through some of the goriest and gut-wrenching scenarios in recent memory.

Buckets of red stuff people here. Buckets.

The film starts its chilling commentary as Jim starts his day consuming bit-sized bits of misinformation and virus denial over social media, which sets the stage going forward. There is definitely an old versus new school thread here as well that even touches on the new socially aware aspect of Chinese culture versus the older less woke set. This has Kat on a train spurning an older man who was making awkward and repetitive advances, by threatening to go to the police for sexual harassment. She is then reprimanded by the man stating this new generation is just too sensitive and a woman should just be able to take a compliment. That man then is of course turned, and spends the rest of the film hunting Kat in a very interesting statement on the predatory nature of men.

The Sadness however really sharpens its claws when we are treated to a government broadcast about the virus where we discover 4.5 million are currently infected. After a rather empty speech about overcoming adversity in the shadow of this virus, which plays out to a bloody emergency room full of people who don’t’ feel any better thanks to these empty promises. One of the soldiers breaks rank on the television, using a grenade to blow up the head of a government official mid-speech. Its ham-fisted as hell, no doubt, but it gets its point across without incident. It’s these kinds of over the top moments that can infuriate, just as easy as instigating a discussion on what film is attempting to comment on.

The Sadness will be a Transgressive touchstone for 2020. It’s vile, unrelenting, hard to watch and there’s a lot of subtext buried beneath the surface for those willing to dig in. I just think most will get hung up on how it’s presented here, but I honestly couldn’t see it produced any other way. The film is a gore soaked blast that is equal parts scathing and hilarious just how far Rob Jabbaz is willing to go in this endeavor, that brought back for me watching a film like The Untold Story or Ebola Syndrome for the first time. It feels even more wrong today, but it’s done in such a tongue-in-cheek way you really can’t take it too seriously. I mean there will no doubt be fans of this film just because its extreme nature, and I don’t say that lightly. But after surviving 2020, this statement feels a bit more cathartic.

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