Prisoners Of The Ghostland

US (2021) Dir. Sion Sono

For some reason, presumably wider international exposure, filmmakers from non-English speaking territories aspire to make a film in Hollywood. Some are successful, most are not. Japanese provocateur Sion Sono is the latest director to sell his soul to the Tinsel Town devil.

In quarantined region of Japan called Samurai Town, run by the ruthless American The Governor (Bill Moseley), one of his granddaughters (sex slaves) Bernice (Sofia Boutella) escapes with two friends Stella (Lorena Koto) and Nanci (Canon Nawata). Bernice ends up in Ghostland, a post-apocalyptic area where the inhabitants are trapped by trauma and escape is unlikely.

To get Bernice back, The Governor release Hero (Nicholas Cage) from prison where he is serving time for a botched bank robbery, and gives him five days to bring Bernice home and earn his freedom. Hero is kitted out in a leather suit fitted with strategically placed explosives which will detonate if he misbehaves or fails his task. He finds Bernice easily enough, getting her home is the hard part.

Sion Sono is one of my favourite directors. His works may be challenging, controversial, and often unpleasant but that is what makes him so exciting. The cynic in me feared Sono and Hollywood would be like oil and water, and whilst Prisoners Of The Ghostland shockingly avoids such catastrophe, it does support my fears little too. That the script wasn’t written by Sono is the first sign some of his genius will be missing.

Providing the script is Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, featuring a straightforward plot which Sono was to embellish with his unique sense of style and maverick aplomb. This is the second attempt by Sono to make an English language film – his first didn’t come to fruition whilst this one was postponed due to Sono’s heart attack, but managed to finish filming before COVID struck.

When Sono wants to go big, he tends to use juxtaposed imagery to make a splash and that is evident in the worlds created for this film. It opens with a snippet of the fateful bank robbery in a regular modern day Japanese town. Sono uses the coloured balls from a gumball machine and a smiling boy to represent the innocence that is about to be shattered by the robbers’ needless violence.

Only later do we discover the extent of the actions of Hero and his partner Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), hinting in Hero a man with some moral fortitude. It is a few years later that Hero – not his name but he is told he will be one if he rescues Bernice – gets to atone for his past and find his road to redemption, by which time the world he once knew has long gone, thanks to an accident involving a tanker of nuclear materials.

Unfortunately, half-baked exposition like this prevents the story from connecting deeper, though Sono’s method of sharing the story of the accident is entertaining from being typically esoteric. Scattered flashbacks from Hero’s fractured memory fill in other blanks, such as how Bernice came to be under The Governor’s dubious employ. Not everything is afforded such depth though, the story behind The Governor’s silent Samurai Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi) and his sister being one of the “granddaughters” is a prime example.

Echoing the post war US occupation of Japan and its influence over the society, Samurai Town is a strange historical Japanese/wild west hybrid, where locals wear kimonos yet the buildings which resemble  old west bars boast modern neon lit signs. Everything is colourful and the energy is vibrant and communal, though this is due to The Governor being venerated as a saviour whom they praise at every turn.

Ghostland resembles something from Mad Max – desolate, dystopian, and full of despair. The ghosts trapping the people are really the individual trauma of the event which left them abandoned in this spartan locale, along with the terror of the large clock primed to explode when it reaches three o’clock. To avoid this, people hold the second hand back with ropes making time literally stand still for them.

Having lost a testicle for being naughty (I did say the suit explosives were strategically placed) but gained the trust of Bernice, Hero encourages the dwellers of Ghostland to help him fight back. Cue the showdown in Samurai Town but thankfully, most of the action is carried by Yasujiro and his vicious sword skills with Bernice displaying some talent with a blade too.

Yet when it comes down to it, we left wondering what the film is trying to say, if indeed there is a message. Hero’s redemption is clear but nothing is known about him to gather what he is redeeming for, whilst the lack of prior uprising against The Governor leaves the stakes of the climax without meaning. If this is about gaining freedom from oppression, the struggle isn’t defined enough to feel important or yearned for.

Luckily, Sono is a visual filmmaker as much as a subversive narrator, and the aesthetic is unlike usual Hollywood fare thanks to his idiosyncratic vision, picking up the slack from the derivative nature of the script. Everything is wonderfully shot and framed, whilst Sono strikes a fine balance between his own style and satiating the need for mainstream appeal even when pursuing his wildest ideas.

Now, I am aware this is blasphemy but Nichols Cage is one of the worst A-list stars I have ever seen, and his turn as Hero didn’t alter my opinion one jot. His character work is empty, confused, and pure ham, yet ironically this means it suits his lack of talent to a tee. Fortunately, the Japanese cast and Sofia Boutella make up for Cage’s awfulness.

Prisoners Of The Ghostland is not a terrible film because of Sono’s greatness, yet it is not a great Sono film. This is the cinematic equivalent of giving a master painter crayons instead of a paints and still expect another masterpiece. Stay in Japan Sono-san!

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