Sanzaru, Japanese, noun – three wise monkeys (who “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil”), a concept that one can interpret as a denial of unwanted truths. Xia Magnus‘ debut feature intertwines spirits from the past and the now, transcending beyond Western borders.

Evelyn (Aina Dumlao – ‘Introverts‘), a young Filipina caretaker, has recently moved in with Dena (Jayne Taini – ‘The Way Back‘), the aging matriarch of a Texas family. As Dena’s mental state is declining with each day, Evelyn starts to feel like her temporary home has its own set of secrets. More and more mysterious events push her closer to her employer’s horrid past, but is she ready to face the truth as skeletons start falling out of the closet?

Magnus’ sinister slow-burn script fits perfectly with the nuanced direction they take with their first film. The abrupt revelations cause a sense of urgency, which has an absorbing effect on its audience, ready to discover the truth behind the mysterious events that take place in this haunted house. Magnus knows how to please viewers by making sure to wrap up the story in the end, not leaving any room for interpretation, although the majority of the film seems to take a more experimental route that stays closer to Asian horror as to the somewhat racist American location it takes place at. A mostly well balanced idea, that creates a unique new kind of indie-horror.

What’s particularly impressive is the unsettling sound effects of ‘Sanzaru‘. The score and music step to the background to make room for haunting chanting and a glitchy old in-house communication system used by spirits to spook the house’s inhabitants. Instead of basic jump scares, this is a more effective way to raise the viewer’s hairs on the back of their neck. It’s perfectly used in combination with practical light-effects, creating a ghost-profile like no other.

The cinematography isn’t anything spectacular, but Mark Khalife makes use of lighting to accentuate just the right objects and its actors to create a less-than-ordinary perspective on things. The entire acting ensemble is very strong. Dumlao is exceptional as Evelyn, compassionate as expected and never afraid to show a more vulnerable side of herself. Dena’s troubled son Clem (Justin Arnold – ‘Sister Aimee‘) makes it very hard to be likable, but with a somewhat agonizing performance by Arnold, he does find a way to make a lasting impression that works superbly beside Dumloa’s. Taini doesn’t get an easy task, portraying an aging woman who’s mind isn’t what it used to be, but somehow cunningly makes it more than believable.

Sanzaru‘ is a psychological horror that deals with dementia and trauma that haunts generations, disregarding borders. A strangely raw story filled with fear and trepidation, that tends to lean towards its more melodramatic elements but never fully tips over. An outstanding debut by Xia Magnus.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sanzaru‘ is screening as part of Fantasia International Film Festival’s 2020 program. Tickets are still available HERE

Fantasia International Film Festival Review – ‘Sanzaru’

Reviewed online (screening as part of Fantasia International Film Festival), August 31, 2020. Running time: 100 min.

PRODUCTION: A Oneonetwosix Films, Film Exchange, Dualist production. Producers: Nathan Hertz, Xia Magnus, Anthony Pedone, Alyssa Polk. Executive producers: Kenny Riches, Matt Wigham.

CREW: Director/screenplay: Xia Magnus. Editor: Joshua Raymond Lee. Cinematography: Mark Khalife. Music: Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs.

WITH: Aina Dumlao, Justin Arnold, Jon Viktor Corpuz, Jayne Taini, Tomorrow Shea, Matthew Albrecht.

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