Monday, 20 September 2021

Prisoners Of The Ghostland

Testicular Prancer

Prisoners Of
The Ghostland

USA/Japan 2021
Directed by Sion Sono
XYZ Films

Prisoners Of The Ghostland is a new movie directed by Sion Sono... my first time with this director, as it happens. I can’t believe I’ve gone this far without stumbling into any movies on his lengthy CV. The film has a bizarre aesthetic to it and, I have to say, I’m not quite sure what the setting of the movie is but... I think that’s just more gasoline on the fire of the almost hallucinogenic momentum of the story as it hits various points along the through line. For example, one of the settings is a kind of ‘backlot’ set of a Western town, populated almost exclusively with Japanese actors... called Samurai Town.

Now, the production was originally supposed to have shot in Mexico and that possibly explains the strong Western overtones to the movie to an extent... heck, there’s even a scene towards the end of the movie where the music is pitched in homage to Ennio Morricone’s famous spaghetti western sound. However, before the movie started shooting, Sion Sono suffered a heart attack. The film’s main lead, Nicolas Cage, then decided that it would be easier for the director if the shoot moved from Mexico to Japan. When this happened, some of the main cast dropped out and that leaves just four main non-Japanese stars in the roster (there are a few more but the main ones are as follows...). We have Nicolas Cage himself, adding to his resume of crazy roles (I’ve gained a lot more respect for him as an actor over the last ten years) as Hero. Then we have the always amazing Sofia Boutella as Bernice, Nick Cassavetes as Psycho and Bill Mosely as the villainous Governor.

The story is that notorious bank robber Hero is in jail after his friend Psycho caused a heist to go very wrong. However, after Bernice tries to escape the town run by the governor, she ends up in the scratch town on the other side of an area known as the ghostland... where apocalypse demons of some sort (there’s a slight twist in the story line later which I won’t reveal here) stop people from returning to the other town. So the governor springs Hero to go and bring her back. However, Hero is fitted with a suit with explosives around the neck, arms and testicles. Two of these devices go off in the course of the film due to certain conditions such as striking a woman or feeling desire towards Bernice but, I’ll leave you to find out which ones for yourself... this one goes places other movies tend not to, it has to be said.

And that’s all the specific story beats I think I’ll mention. I will say that the film is quite surreal in places and while the main flow of the plot is fairly simple, the absence of a lot of logic to both the setting and the way people who populate these two places behave is less easy to get a handle on... for example, both towns seem to be holding an opposite relationship with the mechanics of time which seems like a complete nonsense and adds the fragmented feel of the plot in places. And there are some weird dialogue choices too. Cage is at his most ‘stylised over the top’ in this one (more so than on something like Willy’s Wonderland, reviewed here) and in one scene, where people are crowding around him, I’m pretty sure he repeats the dialogue that Jesus says to the lepers in the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. The film is also peppered with what can best be described as ‘allegorical reappearances’ of dead characters at key points, which possibly happens more in a non-Western culture product, I’m guessing.

The strangeness of the film is coupled with some gorgeous cinematography, it has to be said. For example, the colours in the first three scenes of the movie are like watching one of McG’s Charlie’s Angels epics. Starting off with as much of the opening bank heist as they want to show before a full reveal later in the story, the heist has a small shot of colour but is mostly done with cold, clinical white. Then we cut to a scene of Bernice getting some sex workers out of town and the whole thing is done with bright reds, yellows and oranges. This is followed by another scene where she wakes up in the ghostland town and it’s all teal and orange for a little while.

There’s lot of action and the film is never once dull, it has to be said. And some of the violence is very much 1960s chambara action but every now and again the director will punctuate this with something a little special in terms of artistic expression. For example, there’s a lovely, beautiful piece of expressive, violent choreography where a swordsman gets run into one of those big paper lanterns and his head goes inside. The lantern is in the foreground of the shot so we can’t see his head but when a guy comes up behind and stabs him in the head or neck, the explosion of arterial spray is shown to be filling the inside of the lamp. So stuff like that, where something old is presented in a new way, keeps you watching.

I was thinking about the aesthetic of the film once it had finished and... it’s like the kind of ‘straight to video’ movies you’d see on the rental shelves of a local video store in the 1980s. Such as those low budget, post-apocalyptic science fiction action films where the cast and crew try their best to make the most out of a tiny budget and so it looks a little disjointed in places and doesn’t always quite follow through on all the plot elements... but it would have its own feel and a certain kind of appeal to it. This movie is like if a director had been given a much larger budget but still tried to stick to that kind of stylistic impetus to deliver something slightly out of kilter with what an audience is expecting to see these days. Which is kind of nice and, for all I know, the setting of this movie is indeed supposed to be post-apocalyptic... so there’s that.

Prisoners Of The Ghostland is a fun slice of action cinema which is a little over the top in places and is quite surreal to boot but, also quite gorgeous looking. A place where the tropes of genres such as post-apocalyptic sci-fi, chambara and spaghetti western are blended to give the audience something which feels both familiar but also a little alien. If you’re a fan of the kind of roles Nicolas Cage has been taking on over the last ten years or so, you’ll probably love this one. Certainly something which would play well in an all-nighter screening of movies, for sure.

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