“Sanzaru’s lingering sense of terror makes for a compelling horror.”
Secrets are the driving force of Xia Magnus’ debut feature film Sanzaru, an unsettling slow-burn horror that fuses Southern Gothic and Filipino legend to create an unparalleled ghost story. Sanzaru is the Japanese term for the three wise monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” They are associated with being of sound mind, speech, and action, but can also represent the denial of unwanted truths. In the film the Regan family have buried their dark secrets, refusing to face them until Evelyn begins noticing strange occurrences around the house.
Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is a live-in nurse for Dena (Jayne Taini), the ageing matriarch of the Regan family. Evelyn’s nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), lives with them, while Dena’s son Clem (Justin Arnold) lives in a tent trailer on the property. Taking place on a remote Texas estate, the four almost exclusively interact with each other, with the exception of trips to the post office. Dena suffers from dementia; her mental state is worsening, causing strain in her relationships – sometimes bordering on abuse. Still, Dena’s behaviour is chalked up to her disease until Evelyn begins feeling an ominous presence in the house. Static and unknown voices come from the intercom, Dena’s yellow cockatiel is constantly chirping – or was that the dying smoke alarm? Evelyn begins seeing metaphysical manifestations in her dreams, pushing her to uncover the Regan family’s horrific secrets.
What makes Sanzaru so compelling is the lingering sense of terror present throughout the film. Magnus starts the eerie nature of the film off with a couple of strange occurrences; this is what makes Evelyn question her observations instead of realizing the presence of ghosts on the property. Along with the frightening Gothic cinematography by Mark Khalife, the rest of the supernatural forces in the house are brought out by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs’ bone-chilling score. Jayne Taini gives a wonderful performance as Dena, never using her illness for cheap scares. Instead, her actions correlate with the creepiness of the house. Dumlao plays Evelyn as a quiet and obedient employee; she takes care of Dena at all hours of the night. She is a very giving person, taking care of Amos and Clem as well. She has a deep love for Dena, sitting with her and doing the newspaper crossword, lying next to Dena in bed to comfort her. Her rational and caring demeanour is what makes Evelyn oblivious, some of the beings in the house are warning her to leave, while the others have more sinister intentions.
The first two acts of Sanzaru have the perfect pacing to craft Evelyn’s methodical approach to discovering the truth about the Regans. But the film falters in the third act as everything culminates too abruptly, taking away from how carefully and thoughtfully the rest of Sanzaru is told. The relationship between Evelyn and Clem shifts to romance in the third act as a way to merge the Texan and Filipino story elements but it doesn’t feel necessary as they already live under the same roof.
Sanzaru never delves into traditional jump-scares or disgustingly creepy faces, the horrors here are much more subtle, silhouettes of space between the living and the dead. The malevolent forces can only be confronted when the secrets are finally revealed. Sanzaru is a chilling tale, a clever and unique spin on merging cultures.
Dir: Xia Magnus
Prod: Nathan Hertz, Anthony Pedone, Alyssa Polk, Kenny Riches, Matt Wigham
Cast: Aina Dumlao, Jayne Taini, Justin Arnold, Jon Viktor Corpuz
Premiere Date: 29 August 2020
Available on: Sanzaru is screening at Fantasia Fest 2020