Film Review: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
In the treacherous frontier city of Samurai Town, a ruthless bank robber is sprung from jail by wealthy warlord The Governor, whose adopted granddaughter Bernice has gone missing. The Governor offers the prisoner his freedom in exchange for retrieving the runaway. Strapped into a leather suit that will self-destruct within five days, the bandit sets off on a journey to find the young woman— and his own path to redemption.
Director: Sion Sono
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Moseley, Tak Sakaguchi
Country: United States, Japan
Language: English, Japanese
Runtime: 102 minutes
Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland was my most anticipated film of 2020 and I can’t help but be disappointed after finally catching the film — mostly due to my sky-high expectations with all the names attached.
Director Sion Sono is one of the boldest voices in Japanese cinema with his trademark mix of out-of-this-world visuals and scripts that fall somewhere between thought-provoking cinematic subversions and pure fever dreams. Nicolas Cage, once described by Ethan Hawke as “the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting”, remains one of the most passionate actors working today. His eclectic filmography, stretching from romantic comedies to direct-to-DVD actioners, almost speaks for itself.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is perhaps the only film in recent memory to have a quote from its lead actor in place of the usual blurbs from critics for its marketing materials. It’s understandable though. For Nicolas Cage — the same actor who starred in Vampire’s Kiss and Mandy —to describe the film as the wildest movie he has made is unironic high praise.
It would seem like a match made in heaven. Yet, Prisoners of the Ghostland fails to live up to its potential with how it puzzlingly dampens the outlandishness synonymous with both auteurs. There are hints here and there but the film never truly embraces the crazy nor follow-up on its initial fascinating worldbuilding efforts. Regardless, Prisoners of the Ghostland is still probably the wildest cinematic ride to see a wide release this year — those heading in blind will have one hell of a surprise.
The film centres on a nameless criminal (Nicolas Cage) who is let out of jail by the Governor (Bill Moseley) on the condition that he has to embark on a quest to save his granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from the treacherous Ghostland. However, he only has five days to complete his quest or else his explosive-laden leather suit will self-destruct.
While it is as straightforward as stories can get, that is far from the case from the film’s approach. Where Prisoners of the Ghostland undoubtedly succeeds is with its imaginative depth. Director Sono’s strong suit has always been the visuals he presents. They are surreal enough to constantly warrant second takes but never drifts off into meaninglessness or pretentiousness. They remain endlessly fascinating for how they are clearly informed by the psychology of the Japanese people.
Prisoners of the Ghostland lives in the shadows of national traumas. Japan remains the only country on earth to be nuked. The terrifying irrationality of an entire city being levelled in a matter of seconds has been a consistent theme in Japanese absurdist art. Similarly, the traumatic events of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster saw a country teeter dangerously close to an encore of a national nightmare.
Prisoners of the Ghostland’s examination of Western imperialism is also notably peculiar. Part action thriller, part post-apocalyptic sci-fi, part Western (with samurais), there is an interesting blend of genres at work here. Similarly, how characters interchange between Japanese and English, and how Japanese characters are all subservient to their American counterparts, suggests a Japan that is colonised by the United States, with a dose of Chinese influence.
As strange of a suggestion as it sounds, those interested in the psychology of cinema will definitely have a field day with Sono’s film.
Unfortunately, Prisoners of the Ghostland will find it difficult to satiate anyone else. For the mass audience, the whacked-out imagery and incoherent story can be easily dismissed as nonsensical. The film’s action sequences, despite being consistent bright spots, are stretched to their absolute limits in getting audiences engaged. For fans of Sono and Cage, the film plays it far too safe. Cage, in particular, is mostly on auto-pilot with only a handful of memorable moments, including a passionate rallying cry that somehow involves his family jewels (balls are the film’s primary leitmotif).
For both sides, the film’s worldbuilding is severely lacking even when the attention to detail in each locale is staggering. There are about four in total. Whether intentional or not, the world’s scale also seemingly shrinks over time. The titular Ghostland is initially depicted as a city-spanning hellscape before transforming to the size of two parking lots — the strangest part is how characters actively acknowledge this changing scale.
The most puzzling aspect of Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t its gonzo visuals but with how a collaboration between Sion Sono and Nicolas Cage can possibly end up this tame. No way is this the wildest production Nicolas Cage has ever been in — but it does try its darndest to be. The film is too weird to live side-by-side more straightforward contemporaries on marquees, yet too rare to be completely dismissed as simply not worthwhile.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is now showing in theatres islandwide.