Directed & Written by Xia Magnus.
Starring Aina Dumlao, Justin Arnold, Jon Viktor Corpuz, Tomorrow Shea, & Jayne Taini.
Oneonetwosix FIlms / Film Exchange / Dualist
Not Rated / 100 minutes
Drama / Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
You’ve been warned.
Every year there’s one horror film that really captures my imagination with a unique brand of darkness. Last year it was Sator— another great film introduced to me via the Fantasia Film Festival— and the year before that it was Hereditary, and on the long list goes. This year, barring unforeseen awesomeness, it’s Sanzaru from director-writer Xia Magnus. Another feature film debut at Fantasia that’s an impressive first trot out the gate for a director who’d previously cut their teeth on several shorts.
Magnus’s screenplay follows Evelyn (Aina Dumlao), caretaker to an elderly woman with dementia, Dena Regan (Jayne Taini). She looks after Dena at the woman’s isolated rural home in a sparsely populated area of Victoria, Texas. The only soul nearby is Dena’s son Clem (Justin Arnold) who lives in a small guest house out back. Things are complicated by Evelyn’s nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz) coming to stay with them due to trouble at school. A darker complication comes from a sinister presence in the house, one that calls out to everybody, including Evelyn.
The most effective horror is the kind that lingers. And Sanzaru will hang on your soul. Magnus crafts a compelling story that’s a dark family drama alongside a horrific Southern Gothic with highlights of Filipino culture. It’s also a story about broken people attempting to heal in a house all but literally surrounded by ghosts, trapped in an environment tainted by a disturbing past that’s never been thoroughly cleansed and barely openly acknowledged. Cultural issues and personal hauntings drive the film to interesting places, both creepy and hopeful.
Every Gothic story deals with liminality, it’s just a matter of how, whether it’s got to do with ghosts, romance, sexuality, or any number of other plot elements. Often this Gothic liminality includes the matter of space. A haunted house is a liminal space because ghosts are neither alive nor fully dead, suspended in existence usually to haunt the place where they died. The opening shots of Sanzaru take us through a graveyard near Dena’s little rural house and we hear a cacophony of voices of ghosts caught in such a space. A more interesting way Magnus evokes liminal space is how the intercom flickers at Dena’s place. The intercom becomes a kind of relay for ghostly voices. Dena seems to have an issue with it, potentially hearing her dead husband in the intercom as other voices bleed through, too.
Victoria, Texas serves as a good setting for a Gothic story dealing in liminal spaces. The city was formerly De León’s Colony, part of the First Mexican Republic. Its name is derived from Guadalupe Victoria, first President of the Mexican United States. Its history is itself liminal: Victoria is an American city, yet its history is decidedly Mexican. Not to mention it’s also known as the Crossroads. All this to say, Victoria’s history makes it the perfect place for borderless ghosts. Evelyn’s dead mother turns up as an ethereal presence watching over both her and Amos, which suggests that, contrary to the idea a ghost is connected to the place they died, or their burial place in their own country, her ghost is one unconcerned with borders.
There’s not only liminality in Sanzaru‘s Gothic qualities, there’s a very real corporeal Gothic presence that fits in with the best of the tradition. From liminal Gothic spaces we move into a physical sense of the Gothic that plays on psychology. Dena’s dementia is such that she appears to remember the key on her charm bracelet, that once belonged to her husband. However, her mind can no longer unlock its purpose. Dena’s mind is like a haunted house, filled with doors that even she doesn’t know what lies behind. The key literally unlocks the Gothic secret of the videotapes kept on Dena’s property, willingly or not. Though it’s Evelyn who comes to uncover a terrifying past lurking in the Regan family home.
“It’s not a secret anyone should keep”
The combination of Evelyn’s Filipino culture and the Southern Gothic feel of Dena’s home/town is a significant part of what gives Magnus’s film its unique atmosphere. There’s generic Southern Gothic with the air of death constantly hovering around Dena’s home. Clem’s story takes it deeper than that once we find out about his military service overseas in Afghanistan. This brings in themes of PTSD and the American military ignoring the mental health struggle of its veterans. It likewise constitutes a personal haunting for Clem as we hear an utterly appalling tale about the beating and rape of a young soldier. While there’s a bunch of Southern Gothic most of it’s wrapped up in Clem’s personal demons.
Combined with Sanzaru’s Southern Gothic is a little Filipino culture via Evelyn.
Of course on one side, there’s Evelyn’s spiritual presence that helps guide her. On the opposite side of the spiritual spectrum, Mr. Sanzaru takes on an aswang-like, tormenting presence for her. In Filipino folklore, the aswang is an umbrella term for various shape-shifting entities. Mr. Sanzaru has qualities of the aswang generally paralleled with a Western conception of a ghoul— it doesn’t hurt my theory that Dena’s house is essentially next to a graveyard. Most importantly, an aswang, particularly a ghoulish one, can live in a rural environment among humans while maintaining their monstrous nature. That description defines Mr. Sanzaru while he was alive. His hidden life of disgusting horrors lived side-by-side with his normal family life. The aswang’s said to also be the inversion of traditional Filipino values, such as strong kinship and family closeness. If we view Mr. Sanzaru as an aswang embodying the inverse of those traditions— particularly given his nasty crimes uncovered in the Regan garage— his presence further becomes a test for Evelyn as she struggles with deeply troubling issues of family. And underneath everything, Magnus is telling a story about families.
It’s also the coming together of cultures, represented in Clem and Evelyn’s relationship, that gives Sanzaru a hopeful quality, in spite of the film’s overall deeply unsettling, haunting effect. In this story, the ghosts are exorcised just as much as the inner demons that haunt Clem and Evelyn. They’re like two halves of a broken whole, each rejected by their own culture in certain ways. Clem’s a representation of the U.S. neglecting the mental health of its military veterans, as previously mentioned. Evelyn, whose rape is never confirmed out loud but heavily suggested, is likewise representative of the Philippines and their national treatment of women/sexual assault. Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, said a couple years ago: “As long as there are many beautiful women, there will be more rape cases“— just one instance of how rape culture operates within Filipino culture. These two broken people, crushed in part by their countries’ cultures, come together to try healing each other’s wounds. Clem and Evelyn, along with Amos, find their own fresh sense of familial comfort, each needing different things. A telling scene shows the three of them, the happiest they are in the entire film, sitting at a dinner table as if they were an image of the traditional family. These moments imbued with potential for healing drive the film as much as any of its Gothic elements.
The word ‘sanzaru’ refers to the three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Just the film’s title alone is Gothic, connecting with the past of the Regan family home and the unspeakable secrets that have been kept between its walls. Aina Dumlao and Justin Arnold each live out a version of ‘see/hear/speak no evil’ when it comes to their own traumas, though at the end there’s more positivity for these two than there is doom and gloom.
Magnus does a phenomenal job weaving the everyday together with the supernatural, propping up a solid Gothic tale with a deep narrative about trauma and the hope for healing even as the ghosts pile up and surround us. Sanzaru is a visually stunning film complimented by rich plot and theme. There aren’t many horrors like this one, they only come along so often. I’ve spent over 1,000 words discussing some of the film’s intricacies. Truth be told there’s an inescapable feeling about Sanzaru that can’t be captured in words, it has to be experienced. If you’re like me that feeling will cling to your bones long after you’ve turned on the lights.