With Sanzaru, writer/director Xia Magnus details both the grueling daily trials of elder care and the immigrant experience with the patient, observant eye of a documentarian. Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is a young Filipina woman and live-in nurse for Dena (Jayne Taini), an elderly woman slowly succumbing to dementia who refuses to leave her home. Evelyn is also the caretaker to her teenage nephew, Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), and both have forged a kind of tentative friendship with Dena’s adult son, Clem (Justin Arnold). It’s a potent mix of damaged people; Clem is an Afghanistan vet, while Amos has been suspended from school — both seem prone to potential violence. Evelyn speaks to her sister on the phone, begging her to take Amos back, but they end up bickering about family history and Evelyn’s pleading is refused.
For anyone who has watched an aged relative wither, Dena’s condition is gut-wrenching. Magnus sketches the frailty of a deteriorating mind and body in excruciating detail, and that reality feels downright Cronenbergian. Frequently confused, constantly in danger of falling down, and covered in bruises and bed sores, Dena wanders the house in a daze, unsure where she is or what exactly she’s even looking for. During her infrequent lucid periods, she’s convinced that Amos is stealing from her, and frequently demands to question him. Here, Magnus is careful to delineate the power dynamics and casual racism at play; while Dena depends on Evelyn and even seems fond of her — in one scene they hold hands while working a crossword puzzle together — she doesn’t hesitate to make demands or jump to conclusions. When Clem apologizes to Evelyn for Dena’s latest accusation, Evelyn snaps back that Dena should be apologizing herself to Amos. All of this drama plays out amidst a rural Texas landscape, flat as far as the eye can see, a kind of metaphorical battlefield that is pointedly barren.
Magnus seems less assured when navigating the horror elements of his story; indeed, despite the presence of otherworldly apparitions and revelations of long-buried family secrets, Sanzaru functions better as straight drama than according to its horror inflections. Evelyn starts hearing noises and worries that she’s going crazy. Meanwhile, Dena’s increasingly erratic behavior takes on more sinister overtones. There’s a mystery involving exactly who, or what, the ‘Sanzaru’ of the title is referring to, the resolution of which feels piped in from an entirely different film. And once Magnus begins visualizing a literal battle between good and evil spirits on screen, things veer dangerously close to kitsch. Still, the director has a keen sense of familial drama and gets great performances from his uniformly excellent cast. Jettison the undercooked genre elements, and Sanzaru is a quality gothic melodrama.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2020 — Dispatch 6.