Tuesday, 30 April 2013


William Yang's Sadness is a short, poignant and powerful piece about loss and identity. There's something amazingly warm about it, despite the grim subject matter.

If you've got a spare hour, you should watch Sadness.

Fair warning though: as if the title didn't give it away, Sadness is a powerful and exceedingly sad film. It will make you feel things, and some of those things aren't pleasant. But they are important.

You can watch it RIGHT HERE, now.

William Yang is a social photographer, who has made a living taking pictures, but also uses his pictures to perform unique storytelling pieces in art galleries. In 1999, Tony Ayres directed a film based on one of those performances: Sadness. The performance basically consists of what is pictured above: Yang sits on a stool, facing the audience with an unwavering neutral expression. Behind him, a slide projector casts images on the wall from his photography. In monotone, he tells stories that link with the pictures.

If you want to be surprised by this film, stop reading now and go watch it. I'm going to give a little detail about the stories he tells, but it may be that they are more effective if you don't know what you're in for.

The stories Yang tells in Sadness are of two different aspects of his identity. Yang's heritage is Chinese, but his mother suppressed that culture when he was growing up; he has long considered being Chinese to be undesirable. Yang is also a gay man, who grew up in a community of gay men who, in the 1980s, were hard hit by the outbreak of the AIDs epidemic.

The film is divided into sections, cutting between stories about family and friends. The family segments follow a single narrative through-line, following Yang's quest to find out the truth behind the murder of his uncle, Fang Yuen. These scenes play out like a murder mystery, although the killer is known from the start, with Yang visiting a number of his relatives, asking them if they know anything about it. Here the director adds his touch; re-enactments of each story told by the relatives are woven into the story - still under Yangs mediated narration. These re-enactments are almost comical, at times, playing into the exaggerations of his eccentric old aunts and others. The story builds to a very real climax though, and while it seems unrelated to Yang's discussion of his friends, it becomes strongly tied by the end.

Sections about Yang's friends are the most brutal. In each section he introduces us to one of his friends who has passed on. ("that night he died." he says - it's heart wrenching!) He gives them a few scenes each for us to get to know who they are, what they were into, how they felt about death. One by one, they all die. Yang took photos of all his friends - some of them he captured on their deathbeds.

Here's the craziest thing about this film: Sadness did not make me feel depressed. Indeed, I would argue that watching the film is a healthy experience of empathetic grief. Yang invites the viewer to share in his story, but at no point exhibits any kind of emotional reaction to the saddening course of events. This means that the onus is on the viewer to react - and react they do. For most people, and for me, this is a film that makes them feel. Hard. 

But these stories of sadness are laced with hope. Yang does not act sad, but does talk about his optimistic attitude. In telling us about his friends, he conveys to us the joys of their lives, and the joy he found in knowing them. The wake at the end of the film is so powerful, yet somehow so uplifting, it's like in mourning these people you feel afresh that vitality of life that made them who they were. It's a vitality we all have somewhere in us, but perhaps we forget sometimes.

Of course, Sadness is definitely not for everyone. If reading this far has made you cry... maybe the film is not for you. If you've read this far and remained stony-faced, or stony-hearted, then I recommend it to you all the more. We live such sheltered lives behind all our screens. Yang succeeds in breaking through them. Click the link above, go feel something for once.