For those of you who have never experienced the madness of a Sion Sono film, there is probably no amount of words in the English language that could properly prepare you for the experience of watching Prisoners of the Ghostland. It’s a film that defies definition and induces its audiences with sensory aphasia. With over 50 films under his belt, the Japanese director has built a formidable legacy of films, each one bringing its audiences to places stranger than the last, and each one delving deeper into the insanity of Sono’s artistic vision. Add Nicolas Cage to the mix, and the result is nothing short of a grindhouse classic.
Cage stars as the film’s protagonist, referred to simply as Hero. While serving a lengthy prison sentence for a bank robbery gone horribly wrong, his chance at redemption and freedom comes when the self-appointed government of Samurai Town (Bill Moseley.) enlists his help for a dangerous mission. Our hero’s task is simple: drudge deep into the desert wastelands of a place known as the Ghostland, and to bring back the governor’s daughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutello). Should he fail to complete his mission on time, a bodysuit with explosive timers set around his neck, arms and testicles will detonate and exact its deadly toll on his body. This is probably one of the most important parts of the film. If as an audience member, you are not thwarted by the idea of testicular explosive devices (TEDs?), then this is the moment when you can just strap in and enjoy the ride. For those with more conventional cinematic sensibilities, perhaps another run-through of Bridgerton is in order.
The action scenes in this film aren’t quite as smooth or cutting edge as something you would see from directors like Takashi Miike or Stephen Chow, but Sono has never been that kind of a director. If his decades of experience has taught him anything, it’s how to play to his own strengths. His hyper-stylized and oftentimes incoherent form of world building is top notch, and nobody can claim that this film lacks originality or heart. Sono’s knack for mixing and melding genres is only helped by the wonderful cast of players he surrounds himself with. They are a crew that is willing to just let go of any preconceptions of what art of film should be and just have fun with their roles. It is a film that is completely wild and unpredictable, and quite possibly could mean that we have finally reached the singularity.
Prisoners of the Ghostland was originally slated to be shot in Mexico However, during pre-production, director Sono suffered a heart attack, and Cage suggested that they move shooting to Japan. The result of this was a godsend in disguise. Though the film’s many callbacks to the work of Sergio Leone would have been more at home amongst the desert backdrop of Mexico, the choice to keep things at home in Japan helped to add a bit of color and flavor to the film that might otherwise have been absent. The film spends most of its time rotating between two main set pieces. The first being the vibrant blue and reds of Samurai Town, a place where almost every dispute ends in a sword fight, and the desert wastelands of the Ghostland, a place that bears more of a resemblance to Burning Man than Mad Max.
There is an entropic brilliance in the film’s stylized approach to storytelling. This film is a cinematic hadron collider that sends Sono and Cage a high-speed collision course. The alternate reality that is born out of the collision is something akin to trying to understand higher dimensions of reality: just know that it exists, and try not to think too hard about it. It is a mescaline-infused delve into lunacy that transverses time, space and reality. It is hard to imagine that most audiences will be able to get through this film without tapping out, but those that do, will find a film that they can carry with them and revisit for the rest of their lives. The perfect offering from two artists who have never been afraid to just be themselves, and make the art they feel in the souls.