“You’re just like me, violent and depraved” a crazed aggressor sneers, almost victorious in his defeat in having goaded his target into bashing his head in with a fire extinguisher. A defiantly depraved tale, Robert Jabbaz’ zombie-adjacent horror The Sadness (哭悲, Kū Bēi) as the title implies suggests that the propensity for violence and cruelty lurks within us all merely waiting for some kind of trigger, in this case a deadly virus, to set it free. 

The film opens, however, with tranquility as young couple Jim (Berant Zhu Ting-Dian) and Kat (Regina) cuddle in bed before Kat’s alarm goes off. The mood begins to sour when Jim reveals they’ll have to cancel their upcoming holiday because he’s been offered work on a film and that is apparently something that’s been thin on the ground. As he turns on the TV, a pundit and a scientist argue about the “Alvin virus” which many people apparently believe is only a cold, though those people are obviously quite wrong (sound familiar?). The virologist continues to explain that the danger is the virus contains similar genetic material to rabies and he fears it may soon mutate into something seriously worrying. In any case, he finds it suspicious the virus has fetched up on the eve of an election and hints at the dubious immorality of politicising a public health crisis. Jim first encounters the afflicted on spotting an elderly person in a bloodstained nightgown who later turns up at his local cafe to bite several members of the clientele who then turn on him seemingly consumed by a violent and irrational rage.

Kat meanwhile experiences something similar as a madman with a knife rips through the carriage of the MTR in which she is currently sitting. Yet, as we discover, the violence and sadism is not entirely indiscriminate but informed by the underlying “sadness”, resentment, and anxieties of the infected person. Kat’s day had got off to a bad start when the middle-aged creep (Wang Tzu-Chiang) sitting next to her kept trying to chat her up only to go off a rant about the entitlement of pretty women when he’s only trying to be friendly after she threatens to call the police because he’s ignored all of her polite hints and requests to be left alone. Crazed, the train creep continues to stalk her determined to get his revenge. His rage and violence is fuelled by the pre-existing condition of his misogyny. 

The fact that Kat appears to be otherwise immune to the virus may suggest that she is a fairly well-adjusted person with no underlying sadnesses or personal resentments, yet she is apparently still capable of great violence when presented with the right trigger(s), in this case being existential terror. The infected meanwhile profess themselves in a state of ecstasy as they indulge their darkest desires. Jabbaz’ gore-fuelled odyssey is in truth a little too depraved, the sickening scenes of sadistic violence accompanied by copious amounts of blood not to mention scattered innards and severed limbs. “This is my kiss, I’m kissing you to death” a woman preens while holding a circular bone saw seconds after revealing that she always had trouble making friends but is beginning to feel as if she’s finally found her crowd. 

A minor irony is that this pandemic anxiety is expressing itself in Taiwan which up until recently at least had done a stellar job of suppressing COVID-19 largely thanks to the opposite of the impulses on display here. Yet there is also something of obvious satire in certain people’s refusal to listen to the science even as the president’s head literally explodes live on TV, while Jim picks up a brochure for reasonably priced apartments only to be told that the pandemic has also “depressed” the property market. His next-door neighbour, Mr. Lin thinks Alvin is a conspiracy theory designed to create economic instability those in the know can profit from later. He seems to have a nasty cold, but refuses to go to the doctor because it seems like a lot of bother when they’re just going to tell you to stay at home and rest. Mr. Lin’s theories are in part vindicated by another scientist who also thinks the government has been ruled by political concerns, too afraid of the economic consequences of a lockdown to contemplate ordering one even while knowing not to do so endangers public health. “Everything must be politics. There’s no room for truth” he laments, though as it turns out he isn’t free of his own darkness either. 

Not for the faint of heart, Jabbaz’s absurdist satire is a depraved journey through every kind of human degradation imaginable darkly suggesting that sadistic violence is never as far from the surface in the ordinary person, or indeed in ourselves, as we’d like to believe. “It feels like I’ve finally found a purpose in life” a member of the infected dreamily explains, embracing his life of ultra violence apparently freed of the burdens of contemporary civility. 

The Sadness screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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