Who is Japan’s craziest filmmaker right now? I say it’s Sion Sono. His movies include the gangsta rap karate musical Tokyo Tribe and Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, a satire about an insane filmmaker who, along with his film crew, murders a whole bunch of yakuza gangsters for their art. His latest film, Prisoners of the Ghostland, is his first one predominantly in English and his first one to play in Fort Worth theaters, and writing about it is the unexpected highlight of my week.
The film is set in Samurai Town, a place filled with American geishas and Japanese cowboys, and ruled over by the governor (Bill Moseley), a man who goes around dressed like Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard. Our nameless hero (Nicolas Cage) is this man’s prisoner, a murderous bank robber who has constantly evaded law enforcement. Despite this, the governor is willing to let him go so that he might find Bernice (Sofia Boutella), the adopted granddaughter and part of his harem — yes, eww — who has escaped the governor’s house for the first time in her life. To ensure that the hero doesn’t run off himself, the governor has bombs strapped to the guy’s body, including two to his testicles, which will detonate if our hero has an erection. The hero speaks for all of us when he says, “Really?”
Not weird enough for you? This movie is full of things designed to make you say, “What?!” I’m talking about a flashback that re-enacts a nuclear blast in interpretive dance. I’m talking about radioactive samurai zombies blocking the hero’s path to Ghostland, from whence no traveler returns. I’m talking about the hero picking up a football helmet and addressing it with Hamlet’s “Alas poor Yorick” speech. I’m talking about a chorus of disembodied heads serenading the governor with the bluegrass song “My Grandfather’s Clock.” Time is the center of a bunch of strange religious rituals conducted in this world, as the governor’s retinue of geishas, gunslingers, and swordfighters believe that he is the living embodiment of time itself, while the inhabitants of Ghostland stop a massive clock from moving because they believe that the world will end if time ever starts. At one point, the governor punishes his other granddaughter (Yuzuka Nakaya) by making her stand still and impersonate a clock for the duration of Bernice’s absence.
For once, Sono does not write the script for his own film (one of his writers, Reza Sixo Safai, was the lead actor in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), and he keeps us engaged with his eye for a striking visual. The opening scene takes place in a bank with an antiseptically white interior that’s livened up by a huge gumball machine. The hero finds Bernice among a row of broken department store mannequins in the ruins of Ghostland, some of which are real women wearing mannequin pieces on their skin.
Many of the Japanese actors here are clearly reciting English lines that they’ve learned phonetically. Partly for this reason, the acting is at times cartoonishly bad, or it would be in a film that was anywhere near conventional. In this context, I’m not sure what a good or a bad performance is. Cage himself mostly plays it like he’s the only sane guy in the madhouse. There’s all sorts of satire and cultural references going on that I have no idea about, and pretty much the only part that’s legible are the swordfights, especially when the governor’s henchman (Tak Sakaguchi) sees a bunch of his guys trying to rape his sister and slaughters them wholesale. Maybe it’s futile searching for meaning in Prisoners of the Ghostland, should you see it at Grand Berry or Premiere Cinemas in Burleson. This is a febrile hallucination dreamed up by a madman who came to our shores to run wild. His unhinged vision will give your mind’s eye something it hasn’t seen.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
Starring Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella. Directed by Sion Sono. Written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai. Not rated.