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Sanzaru
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by Jay Seaver

"Smart and spooky."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The opening scenes of "Sanzaru" are genuinely peculiar; most of the rest of the film is grounded and commonplace. In a lot of movies, that might serve as a reminder that there is some sort of dark force lurking in the background, but that's often the opposite of what filmmaker Xia Magns is up to here. Larger-than-life evils are not always invented, but they may be easier to deal with than the more prosaic situations that they're used to explain.

Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is far from home in Victoria, Texas; the Flilipina nurse provides in-home care to Dena Regan (Jayne Taini), a mostly-bedridden widow whose mind is starting to go. Daughter Susan (Tomorrow Shea) hired her; son Clem (Justin Arnold) is staying in his RV on the property, while Evelyn's nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz) is staying in Clem's old room, visiting while suspended from school in Dallas for fighting. It would be a slow, uncomfortable downward spiral, but Dena is panicking over a missing piece of jewelry, which she thinks Amos may have stolen; Amos is beginning to realize that his absent mother and aunt are keeping something from him, and Evelyn is starting to hear spooky noises from the intercom that lets her monitor Dena while doing other work in the house - at least, when the power isn't randomly cutting out. On top of that, the mail occasionally contains a letter for a Mr. Sanzaru, despite the mailman mentioning that Evelyn and "Mo" are the only Asians he can remember being in the area.

Though the audience is primed by the opening narration from Evelyn's dead mother and voices coming from the cemetery, they rapidly come to seem metaphorical. Not entirely - if the static and mysterious sounds from the intercom weren't enough to remind the audience that they were watching a horror movie, the glimpse she catches of old VHS tapes hidden in a room she hadn't realized was there in the preceding months certainly sound alarm bells for savvy viewers. More often, though, what haunting there is seems much more prosaic - Dena freezing, or suddenly seeming to be trapped in the past is the most obvious, but Mo, Clem, and Evelyn all have things that weigh them down. They don't need ghosts, even though there certainly seems to be one there.

That they are all burdened makes them fascinating to watch. Aina Dumlao spends much of the movie playing Evelyn as measured and professional, letting the mask fall a little when she's out of the others' view and picking up determination in the face of horror even when she seems less stable where Mo is concerned. She's the anchor, but almost everyone around her is interesting, with Magnus giving everyone room to have personality as well as purpose. Jayne Taini does impressively well in making Dena's breakdown internal more than external, retreating and seeming confused rather than flashily ranting. I love how multifaceted Justin Arnold's Clem turns out to be; he takes a first impression of being a redneck mess and doesn't just make him a big, well-meaning lug but someone who is often just barely staying ahead of his own issues.

It eventually comes together, of course, and the finale is interesting: Though the action is explicitly supernatural in the way that much of the movie isn't, with "Mr. Sanzaru" being a memorable ghost or monster to see on screen, it all feels grounded in the real - the realization of why Dena feared her bracelet falling into another's hands, Clem not able to remember just exactly where his problems started, Mo locking up after confronting something ugly. It becomes a battle between two abstracted, long-lost parents, with the clash in their plane a reflection of how their children fare in ours.

It's a potentially too-abstract way for a horror movie to conclude, but Magnus handles it well, never losing track of how to communicate with his audience and letting everything work when you just take it at face value rather than look for hidden meaning. Here's hoping he's got more movies like this smart, spooky feature debut in him.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33641&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/01/20 12:24:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Xia Magnus

Written by
  Xia Magnus

Cast
  Aina Dumlao
  Justin Arnold
  Jayne Taini
  Jon Viktor Corpuz



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