We're less than one month into the 2020 moviegoing season and it's already hard to imagine a more psychologically unsettling film than writer/director Xia Magnus's haunting and unforgettable Sanzaru, his debut feature that will have its world premiere at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah later this month.
Sanzaru is a mesmerizing film, the kind of gothic haunting tale that lingers in your bones long after the closing credits have scrolled by and your left with the memories of characters you've gotten to know and family secrets you'll wish you'd never discovered. Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is a young Filipina nurse who has arrived with her son (Jon Viktor Corpuz) at the isolated Texas homestead of Dena (Jayne Taini) and her troubled adult son, Clem (Justin Arnold).
Dena is the aging matriarch of a fractured family. Slipping deeper into dementia, Dena's increasingly altered state seems to be coming alive in the bones of a house that has seen to much, knows too much, and slowly seems to be revealing secrets and traumas long left unspoken and repressed.
After all, within every haunted house has been the people who lived its truths.
The early seconds of Sanzaru reveal the presence within the film of strobe lights that may impact those particularly sensitive to flashing lights, such as those who experience seizures or those with autism, and, indeed, light is practically a character in the impossibly beautiful yet constantly unsettling Sanzaru. It's difficult to describe the wonder that is Mark Khalife's lensing for the film, at first refusing to allow us to get closer to these characters then slowly drawing us in while making magnificent use of every shadow and every nook and cranny of this house that constantly haunts us.
The same magnificence applies to the original score by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs, a score that immerses itself into the viewing experience and eats away at your defenses. Caitlin Ward's production design exists somewhere between the worlds of Gilbert Grape and Leatherface and if that sounds disturbing, well, it should. Kudos should also be given to editor Joshua Raymond Lee for lingering in the discomfort in all the right moments while heightening the suspense and maximizing our emotional resonance with this story and these characters.
Production values are simply top-notch here including Rachel Kinnard's quietly effective costume design and Michael Capuano's enveloping sound design.
Aina Dumlao (television's Introverts, MacGyver) is simply extraordinary as Evelyn, simultaneously radiating the kind of warmth and compassion expected of a hired home health nurse while giving us glimpses of a humanity and vulnerability that slowly gets revealed over the course of the film's nearly 90-minute running time.
As the mysterious yet obviously troubled Clem, Justin Arnold embodies a human being who wears trauma in his soul. It's an uncomfortable performance from moment one precisely because Clem is an uncomfortable young man caught lost in development somewhere between militaristic machismo and wounded child. Arnold's is a memorable performance that largely, and somewhat unexpectedly, gives the film its emotional foundation.
Longtime character actress Jayne Taini (When We Rise) somehow masterfully weaves together the worlds of progressive dementia and psychological horror with an incredibly raw, vulnerable performance as Dena that simply aches with its authenticity, while Jon Viktor Corpuz turns in a quieter yet no less impressive turn as Evelyn's son Amos.
Xia Magnus has seemingly always had one foot in the fringe theater scene and one foot firmly planted in the harsh realities of life; both come into play in this deeply moving yet unsettingly feature debut. Sanzaru simultaneously feels like a story that comes alive in households across America, while amplifying the reality into a deep, impactful exploration of the spoken and unspoken wounds that haunt our minds and the worlds we leave behind.
Nominated for Slamdance's Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature, Sanzaru will have two screenings at the upcoming festival at Park City's Slamdance - Sunday, January 26th at 7:45 pm @ Ballroom and Wednesday, January 29th at 8:30 pm @ Gallery.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic