Justin Arnold

Fantasia Review: Sanzaru

A woman is giving live-in care to an elderly woman with dementia. Due to dealing with health issues and the strain between family members, the strange happenings around the house at first go unnoticed. As the situation becomes more dire, the caretaker has to put the pieces together to save those she loves.

Writer and director Xia Magnus brings his feature-film debut to Fantasia International Film Festival. The plot of Sanzaru follows Evelyn as she begins to care for Dena, an elderly woman who has some mental and physical health issues. Evelyn and her nephew, Amos, live in Dena’s house while Dena’s son, Clem, lives in a trailer on the property. Since Evelyn is primarily alone in the house as she cares for Dena, she starts to notice that something about the house doesn’t feel quite right. We learn that everyone in the home has their secrets and some of those secrets are more dangerous than others. While increasingly sinister occurrences happen in the home, Evelyn begins to solve the puzzle of what haunts the home. It is a haunting, slow burn of a film that has some very eerie moments.

What makes it especially interesting are intercut scenes in which the audience hears Evelyn’s deceased mother speaking to someone named “Sanzaru.” It is these moments that make Sanzaru unique among other films like it while also allowing the audience insight into what’s happening before the main characters do. The film also does a fantastic job of showing the dangerous effects of secrets. Almost everyone in the home has a dark secret they are keeping hidden, and Magnus does a wonderful job of conveying how those secrets can fester and affect later generations.

The cast of Sanzaru gives understated yet powerful performances. Aina Dumlao (Ballers, McGyver) plays Evelyn. Dumlao is great at making Evelyn come across as a very reserved woman, but also dedicated to her job. It’s her dedication and capabilities that make the audience believe she can solve the mystery inside the house. Justin Arnold (Sister Aimee, Lawless Range) plays Clem. Clem struggles after returning from the military, but he has deep and dark secrets that tear him up even more. Arnold portrays Clem in a way that makes the character dark and mysterious, but also makes him entirely sympathetic. Both Dumlao and Arnold also have great on-screen chemistry together.

One of the things I enjoy most about Sanzaru is the unique depiction of ghosts. During the intercut scenes I previously mentioned with the voice of Evelyn’s mother, all we see is a glowing ball of light in the center of the screen. Eventually, those scenes bleed into the real world and the house where Evelyn cares for Dena. There is a brilliant use of light and shadow to convey spirits of those who have passed and also denotes whether these spirits are friend or foe. This not only adds visual interest to the film, but it also helps elevate the suspense in the climax of the film.

Sanzaru is an eerie and unique tale of a family haunted by ghosts and secrets. Magnus makes a strong debut for his first feature film. It’s clear he is one to watch in the future. The plot is a relatively simple, slow-burn, but Magnus adds depth and interest to make his film memorable. Strong performances and haunting visuals help bring everything together. The film is a great study on subdued horror and the generational consequences some secrets leave behind.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10