★★★☆☆

The Sadness is a nasty and thoroughly unpleasant survival horror film set in Taiwan, directed by Canadian first-timer Rob Jabbaz. Warning: this movie is not for the faint-hearted and requires a strong tolerance for depictions of sexual violence on screen.

Jim and Kat are a young couple living in Taipei, Taiwan. The world has been suffering a global pandemic for a year or so. The Alvin virus, as it’s called here, has been relatively benign enough not to cause society to crumble. When a mutation turns sufferers into homicidal maniacs with a penchant for rape and cannibalism, however, Jim and Kat, separated by the demands of the storytelling, must fight their way across a frazzled city, avoiding all sorts of crazy horrors.  

The Sadness cross cuts between the two protagonists. Kat is on her way to work and witnesses a multiple stabbing on the metro train. When the young woman sitting next to her is stabbed in the eye, Kat plays the good Samaritan and takes the victim to a local hospital. They’re followed there by a gentleman who was sexually harassing Kat previously, but the virus made him go psycho in the meantime. Jim, on the other hand, is at a local café when all hell breaks loose. Riding off on a scooter, desperate to locate his girlfriend, he too must face threats of mutilation and murder.  

Rob Jabbaz is not messing around. The Sadness is bold and totally exploiting the world’s current fraught circumstances. Although not too difficult to find a political subtext related to Taiwan and the threat from communist China, the film is more universal in its message than any East Asian-specific situation. Released in the same year as Michel Franco’s astonishing and bravura New Order, these films depict, to different levels of quality and success, what would happen if people went on the rampage and the damage they would inflict on others. In a way, both these titles, along with the popular Purge series, succinctly capture the ugliness of spirit and foul mood of the times we live in. Whether we need such a reminder is moot.    

For a debut feature, it’s impressive and thoroughly committed to its vision of Hell on Earth. The atrocities, bleak tension and stomach-churning imagery are unstoppable, the director deeming them necessary for maximum impact. The Sadness offers no variation, no respite, no hint of a happy ending, no hope, but it isn’t supposed to either. On offer for 98 minutes is nothing but nihilism, misery, and murder. It’s provocative cinema; less slap to the face, more like repeat punches to the gut.   

Arrow Video FrightFest runs from Thurs 26th August to Monday 30th at the Cineworld Empire, Leicester Square. The digital event, Best of the Fest, runs from 1st to 5th September. For tickets, digital event and Covid 19 health policy information, click here.

Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio