As much as I love to go into a film blank, it's often impossible to avoid awareness of a film's reputation. Since the very first screening of Rob Jabbaz' The Sadness [Ku Bei] my social streams have been alight with glowing reviews, underlining the grotesque and insane nature of the film. So even though I had no idea what The Sadness was about, I went in expecting something that would tickle my horror feelers. And while that is a steep challenge for just about any new horror film out there, The Sadness actually delivers. Even better, it does so without having to resort to excessive shock tactics, just pure cinematic horror fun.
To say I'm not an active supporter of the zombie/infected niche is a pretty big understatement. Ever since the zombies became side characters in their own genre things have only gotten worse (i.e. the "humanity is the real monster" nonsense popularized by The Walking Dead), so when I realized what The Sadness was going for, I was a little worried the film would fail to meet expectations. But Jabbaz shows it's not about genre or niches, it's about what you do with them. After a short introduction, the infection starts and the rest is just one big horror roller-coaster.
If (like me) you're wondering how a Canadian guy ended up in Taiwan directing a horror film, it turns out it's all just a bit of a coincidence. Apparently, Jabbaz followed some friends to Taiwan for its graffiti scene. His love for animation, a COVID pandemic and a generous and supportive producer later Jabbaz had canned his very first feature film, that is making waves across the global horror circuit. It's a cute tale that stands in welcome contrast to all the "work hard to realize your dream" stories out there. Sometimes things just happen, I guess.
The plot is pretty basic, but what did you expect from a film like this. A new, somewhat harmless disease is doing the rounds, scientists are afraid of its mutation potential. The new virus shares similarities with the rabies virus, which would cause absolute mayhem. And sure enough, a couple of days later crazed humans start roaming the streets, spreading the disease like a wildfire. A young couple, who may have said their last goodbyes in the morning, are used as mules for the audience. We follow them around as they try to find their way back to each other.
Jabbaz makes good use of the Taiwanese setting (both the urban and rural parts), but the cinematography isn't exceptional. There's quite a bit of shake cam to add to the chaos and proper editing to increase the tension, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. Jabbaz and his crew do deserve credit for the horror bits, which look appropriately gross and grotesque. The effects team did a superb job on a relatively small budget and there are some truly memorable moments, even when not every shot is as graphic as it could've been. These toned-back moments never come off as budgetary choices, which is pretty rare.
The soundtrack by TZECHAR is also a huge asset. I've always claimed low budget cinema could benefit greatly from a soundtrack that sets it apart, The Sadness is a perfect example. I'm not familiar with the artist, but the music has a unique vibe that grants the film extra character needed to distinguish itself from countless other horror films. It's a shame that the best tracks are kept for the end credits, it would've been even better if they had been featured throughout the film, but that's just minor nitpicking. This is a smart and successful score.
Horror films differ from other genres in that they benefit infinitely more from an outstanding performance by one of the bad guys, which is where The Sadness truly excels. It's not that the leads are bad or uninteresting, but the one guy everyone will remember is the sleazy businessman, brilliantly played by Tzu-Chiang Wang. He becomes the face of the entire film. And while his character isn't very deep or fleshed out, there's a level of creep that I haven't seen in a while. It's a great example of how you can do a lot with very little, and it'll no doubt become a career high for Wang.
The film starts off pretty strong, goes through a handful of scenes that are poised to become cult classics (like the metro scene or the hospital invasion), keeping the pace high and the horror graphic. All that was needed to make this an instant classic was a banging finale, but that's where Jabbaz decides to add a bunch of extra exposition. The pace slows to a crawl and the horror makes place for drama. The ending isn't too bad in its own right, the explanation of the title is interesting (and harrowing) and the plot unravels in a pretty intriguing way, but it's not really what this film needed.
The Sadness isn't without minor flaws, but they are easy to overlook. The sheer enthusiasm, the brutally graphic nature of the horror and the solid pacing make this by far the best infected flick I've seen in years, if not decades. It's a lovely showcase of Jabbaz' talent, who I suspect will have little trouble securing funding for his next project. After a film like this, the stakes are high and expectations may balloon unrealistically, but that doesn't take away from the pure cinematic joy that is The Sadness. It's an easy recommend for every horror enthusiast out there.