The realization that all families have a shelf life is a sobering one...
...I remember one day looking through old photo albums of pictures taken by my mother, uncle, and grandparents, all of whom passed long ago, and having it dawn on me that, while they were documenting the intimate moments I was now leafing through, it probably never occurred to them that one day those photographs would be the only thing left of their clan. Just as it’s happened to so many other families before them, all the memories they had made together would one day be lost to history. So too would their secrets. In writer/director Xia Magnus’ debut feature film Sanzaru, which had its Los Angeles Premiere at Screamfest, we watch a crumbling family deal with the ghosts from its past (both figuratively and literally) that refuse to be forgotten, and the reckoning they bring in their wake.
Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is a live-in nurse and caregiver whose elderly patient Dena Regan (Jayne Taini) suffers from dementia and is entering the final stages of her life. She spends her days juggling her work responsibilities, caring for her troubled nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), and keeping her distance from Dena’s brooding adult son Clem (Justin Arnold). Then one day things begin to take a turn as strange occurrences and disembodied whispers make themselves known from the darkness of her employer’s home. As Dena becomes more and more unrecognizable, buried family secrets resurface, and Evelyn begins to wonder if she’s losing touch with reality all together.
Sanzaru is a devastating film on many levels. Magnus crafts an eerie, slow-burn narrative that deals with isolation, alienation, and the traumas families sometimes hide away in their hearts. Everyone in the film is internally struggling with pains they cannot share or are trying to forget, whether it’s Evelyn and the secret she tries desperately to keep from her young nephew or the Regan family and their dark past. When the supernatural happenings begin to occur in their home, everything that’s been pushed down begins to bubble to the surface. That atmosphere of tension and repression slowly giving way, like earth crumbling from the shore back into the sea, is palpable throughout the picture, manifesting itself through the dreary shadows that loom over every shot of the Regan household. It’s the kind of film that sinks into your bones and features imagery that will stay with you long after it’s over.
The terrors Sanzaru presents to us have toes dipped in both reality and the surreal. It depicts aging and the challenges faced by those suffering from Alzheimer’s in a way that is brutally honest and deeply heartbreaking. You experience in real time the sense of loss felt not only by Dena's son and daughter but by the poor woman herself. Coupled with this is a healthy dose of body horror that feels all too familiar for anyone who has ever had to care for a person whose body has betrayed them. As for the more supernatural frights, they are used conservatively but to great effect. There are some wonderfully bizarre, almost hallucinatory, visions seen in Sanzaru that will have you squirming in your seat.
If there was one criticism to be leveled against Sanzaru (really it’s more of a word of caution) it’s that the film's pace is sometimes glacial. To build the levels of tension it creates, Magnus takes his time peeling back layer upon layer of each character’s psyche. This attention to character development pays off in the end but viewers who don’t enjoy slow-burn horror might find themselves checking their watches from time to time. Those who love that kind of storytelling, however, will find Sanzaru a hypnotizing experience.
Some horror films stay with you because of the sheer savagery of their subject matter or gory set pieces. Others affect their audiences on a purely psychological level, burrowing roots deep into their consciousness in a way that causes them to resurface in the mind’s eye every time the lights are turned out. Sanzaru lies somewhere in between those two schools of horror filmmaking. Equal parts haunting and visceral, it’s a story that will hit most viewers close to home. It captures beautifully the sadness of the final days of a disintegrating family, and the terror of what sometimes happens behind closed doors.
By Patrick Brennan