SLAMDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! When Sanzaru opens, it is the middle of the night, in a weathered cemetery, nestled along a country road. Tightly focused on individual tombstones, the voices of the deceased can be heard — one voice at first, which is quickly followed by more. Soon the voices become drowned out by one another. It’s the perfect metaphor for writer, director Xia Magnus’ somber, muddled, yet ultimately effective film.
Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is a good person. An in-home caretaker, she tends to the aging Dena (Jayne Taini), who lay upstairs suffering from occasional bouts of dementia. Unable to offer full-time care, Dena’s son Clem (Justin Arnold) lives on the property in a trailer, a just stone’s throw from the main house. Despite Clem’s seemingly ambivalent approach to his mother’s condition, concern shines through on occasion. To complicate matters further, Evelyn’s younger relative Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz) has come to stay for an extended visit after being suspended from school.
Things are relatively calm, for the most part. Yes, there is the occasional incident. Yes, Dena keeps hearing voices emanating from the home intercom system. But none of that is a problem until her caretaker Evelyn begins to hear them too.
“…Dena keeps hearing voices emanating from the home intercom system.”
Magnus’ slow-burn script is a nice compliment to her quiet direction and her penchant for abrupt revelations. But there is an uneven trust in the audience and their ability to embrace the unknown. Some points are allowed to linger, and others are spelled out in great detail. To Magnus’ credit, all is revealed in the end, and all loose ends are accounted for, just some are more elegant than others.
Dumlao’s Evelyn is a stoic woman of clarity, who must be reasonable when nothing seems to make sense. For a caretaker, this makes sense, but some of her moments come off as unaffected. Jayne Taini’s portrayal of Dena, an aging woman with dementia, is dignified and compassionate. Thankfully nothing is played for laughs or camp. Mark Khalife’s pulls off a quiet color poem in hues of pale blue, green, and pink, speaking in reserved camera work.
I can honestly say there is some wonderful filmmaking here. A melancholy psychological thriller, Sanzaru plays with themes of mortality, abuse, the afterlife, and the hell that we all ultimately trap ourselves in despite our best efforts. It’s not the most elegant at times, but its aim is consistently sincere. Populated by adequate performances, a sincere message, and a writer, director who is aiming for real storytelling and a message, Sanzaru is worth your time.
Sanzaru screened at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival.