An estimated 10% of the Philippines’ population works outside of the nation. Many such domestic and home-care workers have found themselves in exploitative situations. In Evelyn’s case, her employers’ treat her pretty fairly and respectfully. However, their karma is truly terrifying. Past anguish and lingering guilt metastasize to an uncanny extent in Xia Magnus’s Sanzaru, which premiered at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
Home-bound Dena Regan and her grown son Clem, a discharged veteran, live in the middle of East Nowhere, Texas, literally a world away from the Philippines. Yet, it is a decent paying gig for Evelyn, especially since they also allowed her to bring over her son Amos when he got into trouble at school. Technically, he has always known as his aunt, even though he has long suspected the truth.
Dena’s relationship with Clem is probably even more awkward, because of the family’s mysterious history. He still suffers from some serious service-related PSTD, but he is probably even more haunted by whatever it is they never talk about. The name “Sanzaru,” the Japanese word for the see-hear-and-speak-no-evil monkeys, ominously looms over the house. In fact, Evelyn can often hear a spectral entity whispering that name.
Sanzaru easily fits within the new “elevated horror” rubric. There are absolutely no cheap jump-scares, but the atmosphere of decay is almost stifling. To be honest, the limited woo-woo special effects look like they were rendered in the 1980s—the early 1980s, but they are not the point. Instead, Magnus unflinchingly depicts the consequences of trauma on individuals, families, and even the outsiders who enter their orbits.
Shrewd viewers will probably easily guess the family’s hidden shame, because it is usually the big secret in films like this. Nevertheless, it explores its themes with unusual humanism, especially for a genre(-ish) film. This is most notably true with the character of Clem Regan, who demonstrates how the demarcation between victim and villain is sometimes quite blurry. In fact, his Job-like suffering ultimately makes him an acutely sympathetic figure—no doubt Justin Arnold’s remarkably sensitive performance is a tremendous help in this respect.
Arnold is indeed terrific as Regan and so is Aima Dumlao portraying Evelyn. They also make each other even better in several deeply poignant scenes they share together. Jayne Taini and Jon Viktor Corpuz are both perfectly cast as Dena Regan and Amos, respectively, but the inner struggles of Evelyn and Clem and their relationship overshadow everyone else in this intimate chamber nightmare drama.
Although Sanzaru tells a radically different story, its tone is not so different from HBO’s Stephen King limited series, The Outsider. The two moody tales of dread illustrate how tragedy compounds over time and cycles of victimization repeat themselves. Highly recommended for fans of arthouse horror and indie cinema, Sanzaru screens again Wednesday (1/29), after premiering last night at this year’s Slamdance.