Xia Margus’s feature-length debut, Sanzaru, takes its name from the mythical ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’ apes. It perfectly encapsulates the centralized themes of the film, which involve ignoring sins of the past at our own peril. On its surface, the story is fairly straightforward. Evelyn, a young Filipina nurse played by Aina Dumlao, lives in rural Texas, charged with taking care of Dena, (Jayne Taini) in her final days. Also in the house is Evelyn’s troubled nephew, suspended from school and all but kicked out of her sister’s house.
Of course, their stories run much deeper, as they all seek to hide from a past shame. The slow, atmospheric drama builds, as Evelyn deals with strange noises, a suicidal cockatiel, and Dena’s increasingly erratic behavior. Ultimately, the tension explodes in a final act with some disturbing, and some quite obvious, reveals accompanied by monster effects straight out of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu. Marking a sharp tonal contrast with the melodrama at play in the film, and with typical ‘haunted house’ manifestations, Margus instead plunges headfirst into the surreal.
There are moments in Sanzaru equally shocking and puzzling. Perhaps because they’re entirely unexpected, or perhaps because they contrast so starkly with the family drama being played out between the nurse and her nephew, the family matriarch and her son, and, naturally, the son and the nurse. Ultimately, the movie blends around 75% domestic melodrama with 20% the aforementioned Hausu, and about 5% The Taking Of Deborah Logan for good measure.
When this film works, it really works—in particular, the performances from Dumlao and Justin Arnold as the son. Both actors bring a genuine vulnerability to the screen that makes their respective journeys both touching and tragic. They also command a physical presence, Dumlao specifically and despite her stature, as they often struggle with Dena’s senility and fragility. Ultimately though, the film posits a powerful connection between past, present, and the revealed source of the “haunting,” setting up the potential for an explosive climax.
However, I unfortunately found the ultimate manifestation of evil too comical and out of character for what had been a very serious film up to that point. And while normally blending of genres that don’t blend is a personal sweet spot, I couldn’t quite bridge the gap here. Nevertheless, the story being told is moving and powerful, with amazing attention to detail both in terms of performances and set design.
Sanzaru made its international premiere at Fantasia Fest on August 29, 2020.