Director: Sion Sono
Writers: Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai
Staring: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley, Nick Cassavetes and Tak Sakaguchi
Sion Sono is a unique and interesting director and it’s no surprise that Nicolas Cage would end up working with him in his first English-spoken film, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Cage has described the film as ‘the wildest movie I’ve ever made’ and that’s a large claim for the star of Mandy, Vampire’s Kiss and Willy’s Wonderland.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is like Mad Max on acid. It’s a bizarre post-apocalyptic samurai, wild west, neon infused world with characters that would feel at home in Twin Peaks. It’s an intense thrill-ride with strange moments of comedy and blood that steams out of people’s necks like confetti. This is a film where Nicolas Cage, who plays a character simply named Hero, can shout ‘testicle’ at the top of his lungs and somehow be one of the more normal characters in the film. The villain, The Governor (Bill Moseley, House of 1000 Corpses), wears a pristine white suit and has a fan club that just chants his name over and over. He feels closer to Colonel Sanders than a cult leader.
Cage is great, as usual, and is keeping up his string of great films after a decade of mediocre to terrible. Since Mandy he has been on a winning streak and hopefully that won’t end anytime soon. It’s hard to tell if he’s at his craziest here, the world around him is surely stranger, but he is intense in an often quiet kind of way. We’re introduced to Hero when he is robbing a bank at gunpoint. You’re instantly told that he’s the bad guy, but you can’t help but root for him. He spends a large part of the middle of the film asleep and dreaming about the world around him. It’s through the dreams that we get the world explained to us and it’s fitting that the dreams are more straight forward than the waking world.
The action is strange and unique. There is a lot of sword fighting, where it’s clear that the sword doesn’t connect, there’s no blood, and then lots of streaming fountains of blood elsewhere. It’s a strange odd mix of too little and too much to be realistic but more than enough to keep it entertaining. The fighting is entertaining and the whole film passes along at a quick pace. It’s a little over ninety minutes, but doesn’t feel like it. The world it creates, feels that this should be the first episode of a show or the introduction to a sprawling Fallout style game.
There is a lot to unpack outside of the story. Lots of images and moments that feel significant, from the banners promoting tax in the background, to the posters advertising ‘make this country great again’ with a mushroom cloud. It’s a film that definitely feels like a blend of American and Japanese culture and is dealing with the strong influence the American occupation had over Japan after the Second World War. There’s a theme of time and looking back, and how our past haunts us. A recurring image is the boy who died in the bank robbery at the beginning. Prisoners of the Ghostland gives you enough to think about and unpack while at its core it’s an action packed adventure of Hero saving Bernice (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy). It sums up this film that he first finds her trapped inside pieces of mannequins.
The aesthetic in this film is completely beautiful. From the opening scene with the bright coloured gumballs and bold clashing colours the customers in the bank are wearing that Sono knows how to make something look cinematic. It’s reminiscent of Tokyo Drifter with colours clashing with the largely white background. The world beyond the bank is fascinating to look at as well, with bright neon lights clashing with the muted colours of the post-apocalyptic world. The score is also fantastic a mix of loud and epic sweeping music and softer synth moments.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is completely bonkers. It’s not hard to get into in the same way that Aronofsky’s Mother, or David Lynch’s stranger outings are. It’s completely accessible and enjoyable as a strange goofy film and when you peel back some of the layers there is something more to discover.