Sanzaru is a film that might look like a film along the lines of The Dark & The Wicked in its rural set-up for a horrific force haunting a house, but off the bat, there’s something much stranger at hand. A gothic folktale set in modern times, Xia Magnus’s Sanzaru blends the world of Asian folklore with the Southern Gothic stylings of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre into a hybrid of great intrigue.
There isn’t much follow through in the end, but there is great intrigue nonetheless.
Sanzaru follows Evelyn (Aina Dumlao), a Filipina caretaker for Dena (Jayne Taini), a rural Texas woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. Eveyln is taking care of her nephew, Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), who has come to America without his mother. All three of them soon begin to realize strange occurrences and behaviors in one another that take on a sinister nature. With the help of Dena’s kids, Clem (Justin Arnold) and Susan (Tomorrow Shea), they begin to discover dark secrets within the house and Filipino spiritual folklore stalking the home.
Sanzaru starts off quietly, but flashy…literally, the film features quite a bit of strobe effects when detailing the nature of the sinister spirit in the house (the film starts with a trigger warning for those affected by said effects), and it’s a very effective way of showcasing the simple, yet frenetic nature of an unseen being, similar to the stunning opening from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. From here, the film slows down an exceptional degree to a super slow-burn horror film that uses its ample atmosphere and characters in building the tension towards its finale.
The strongest part of Sanzaru most definitely lies in Dumlao’s performance, which taps into a deep emotional connection with the material and presents Evelyn as still having to maintain a sense of professionalism around the family that employs her, even in the face of danger. It’s a stunning dichotomy of the lives of domestic medical workers in the rural United States, particularly foreign nationals, to fulfill some sort of role their white counterparts expect from stereotypes and internalized racism. It’s not a big part of the film, but Dumlao’s performance finds this really uncomfortable balance which creates more stakes.
And that’s where Sanzaru kind of lost me in the end. While the film succeeds greatly at building an isolated atmosphere filled with intrigue, there’s not much that comes from it in the end. The film builds up into a final act that tries to combine many different themes together that never becomes cohesive. This leads the film to feel convoluted and, ultimately, unfinished by the time the final title card rolls. It, unfortunately, takes on too much in its short runtime to fulfill all of its promises and introduces so many of them so late in the game that they feel tacked on.
That’s not to say that Sanzaru isn’t a competently made film, as it does feature a ton of atmosphere and beautiful cinematography from Mark Khalife, which frames the Texan countryside with a beautifully drab melancholy that does the film very well building its tight, limited world. Its world is one lacking traditional beauty, but finds it in the unique and effective framing of the film. Shot in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, it succeeds greatly in creating a claustrophobic feeling from its framing alone.
There’s nothing keeping Sanzaru from taking a little extra time to flesh out some of the ideas that it’s presenting, being only 87 minutes with credits. There’s certainly time to do so without becoming overlong. In an age where everyone thinks they can make a 2.5+ hour film, Sanzaru feels like the rare exception of something that could’ve taken the extra time and given the film more of the depth it needed. Without it, the film’s slow-burn pace, which was so intriguing at first, somewhat crashes down on itself by not delivering much on anything it sets up. In its good moments, it’s genuinely creepy and unsettling, it just has nothing of substance outside of being occasionally creepy and unsettling.
Currently streaming during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.