There are few films as outlandishly violent as The Sadness. This fast-paced horror film is set in modern day Taiwan as a deadly virus hits. Government mismanagement, and denial, lets the whole thing get out of hand very quickly and the result is chaos. The virus is specifically not COVID-19, don’t worry, but the parallel is very purposeful. Here, recent events are used as inspiration for a light critique of governmental negligence but, really, as an excuse for a full blown gore fest. Here, the virus drives people mad – animalistically so as they burst with violence and lose all control of every impulse – this functioning as a way of critiquing how people react to states of emergency and also as an overt expression of the film’s view of human nature.
This may be all too soon for some. Though, there is a joyful what-if sensibility to the film. Taiwan handled their initial COVID outbreak very well, taking a strong stance; this film is therefore a comfortable hypothetical and a rigid reminder of the importance of the steps taken. This is very much the limit of any commentary on current affairs, though, as this is really just a film that uses recent events as inspiration and nothing more. Think of this not as a COVID film but as a re-imagining of George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) for the COVID era. The plague here is not as important as the effect of the plague, it is a means to an end and an excuse to make an ultraviolent film about humanity let loose.
There is a core nihilism here. The film represents an atavistic ideal, a Hobbesian logic that mankind is – at its heart – nasty, brutish and cruel. According to The Sadness, we are just civil shells put over impulsive and violent cores, the true heart of humanity being aggression and selfishness. If we were to let our desires overtake us, if we lived unchained, we would be beasts. It is a cynical and reductive world view, and not one I agree with. It does, though, make for an entertaining film. The vast majority of the film is just hyper-violence, just people becoming the same as animals as they savagely attack each other. This works due to the energy of the filmmaking and the quality of the gore effects. Everything feels nasty and physical, and is also creative. We consistently up the ante here, finding new ways to shock the viewer.
Though the film is incredibly brutal from the start, it still finds room for escalation. I feel that there is a core sadistic logic to the film but I also feel the expression of this is actually more playful. This is a thrilling watch and the violence is hyperbolised and knowingly ridiculous – even including a moment that is a clear allusion to Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981). Things just accelerate throughout the film and this energy is infectious, the gore and violence becoming an expression of creativity more than anything else. When the film stays in this register, it is darkly delightful. It delivers pure genre thrills done incredibly well, with gore that hits on a visceral level but impresses technically; gore hounds will spend as much time admiring the craft as they do wincing.
Alas, the humanity unleashed angle does just get in the way. What would work better as a glorified zombie film – just people made violent by a virus – decides it wants to be more provocative. The film includes a lot of targeted violence against women and also starts to depict sexual assault and further cruelty. The balance between fun and sadism is lost and the film starts to feel tiresomely provocative as it pushes boundaries for the sake of it. Ultimately, this hinders the film because it is so at odds with what is good about it. When the film is just a violent explosion of gore, it is rather gleeful, feeling hyperbolic and detached from reality. When we get into a presentation of base desires, the disagreeable philosophical world view comes to the front and is hard to ignore. The film also just is not a serious exploration of anything: exposition is kept very slight and the whole narrative just exists to thread together violent set-pieces. The sadistic moments do not entertain and the film is built around being entertaining. Serious content is brought into a film that stays away from sincerity and exploration, and this is an issue. Mostly, though, the film stays where it should. Though there are notable caveats, this is an incredibly fun film that will please the gore hounds.