Sanzaru marks the debut of director Xia Magnus. The film has garnered quite a bit of buzz on the genre festival circuit as a selection of the Slamdance Film Festival, Wisconsin Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival, and the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. Sanzaru stars Aina Dumlao, Jayne Taini, Justin Arnold, and Jon Viktor Corpuz.
Evelyn is a young Filipina nurse that has moved with her nephew to a remote Texas estate to care for the aging matriarch of a strange family. As the elderly woman’s symptoms of dementia get worse and her behavior increasingly erratic, Evelyn’s patience begins to fray. To make matters worse, Evelyn is plagued by the strange and threatening sounds coming from the house’s intercom.
I’ll say this for Sanzaru, it has found a grounded place within the subgenre of Southern Gothic horror. The film has this exquisite atmosphere of decay that shows great promise. Every shot feels muted, rotted, or in shambles. There is a great deal of quiet and stillness that creates the same eeriness of the tomb. Perfecting an effective gothic atmosphere is critical to any good ghost story and Sanzaru is successful in this.
There are two ghosts at the film’s center: the spirit of Evelyn’s recently deceased mother and the mysterious Mr. Sanzaru, a malevolent ghost that haunts the family under Evelyn’s care. It’s to the films credit that these two ghosts are so present and so thoughtfully brought to the screen. Sanzaru brilliantly relies on light tricks and raspy communication over an old intercom to bring these spirits into the world. It’s a refreshing shift from ghost stories that show too much of their spooks, however it is lacking in some areas.
Sanzaru is a bleak dirge of a film. A miserable, dragging death. The film struggles under its own weight and the result is a slow, depressing piece. It’s so subtle that you can barely feel that plot moving as the runtime drags on. To add to this critic’s frustration, for a film that so slowly addresses everything the lore and explanation of the haunting feels rushed and half-baked. It’s a shame to say, but this is the nail in the coffin for Sanzaru.
Sanzaru is an ambitious piece of writing. The film introduces a very nuanced and thoughtful discussion of ancestral curses, the burden of shame on a family, and the consequences of concealing shame and turning a blind eye to evil. As I said at the outset, as a Southern Gothic story it’s quite good. However, as a horror film it drags to a degree that can’t be forgiven.
The elements that work in Sanzaru work really, really well. As a debut effort, it shows impressive attention to detail. Hopefully, with a more energetic script, Xia Magnus can apply their very clear talent to greater effect.
Sanzaru held its International Premiere at Fantasia Fest 2020 on August 29, 2020. The film will screen again on September 1 at 5pm.
Movie Score: 2/5