What happens when Nicolas Cage is the most normal person in the insane new Nicolas Cage movie? Does the Multiverse implode? This is the question that occurred to me while enjoying Sion Sono’s newest film PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND stars Nicolas Cage (Hero), Sofia Boutella (Bernice), Nick Cassavetes (Psycho), Tak Sakaguchi (Yasujiro), and Bill Moseley (The Governor). It is directed by Sion Sono (Why Don’t You Play In Hell, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Cold Fish, and Suicide Club) and was written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, who both are neophyte writers. The cinematography is by Sohei Tanikawa who has worked with Sion before.
Hero and his friend Psycho, the names are quite descriptive of each character, are shown robbing a bank in flashback and things don’t turn out well. Hero ends up at the mercy of The Governor who sets a task for him to complete. Hero is compelled to do this at gun and sword point and because he is encased in a most curious suit. His mission is to find Bernice in the mysterious and dangerous Ghostland and bring her back to The Governor. He doesn’t really want to do it but the suit compels his cooperation. From there, things get even more strange. If you think that’s not possible, you’ve never watched a Sion film. You should fix that.
The film is a mixtape of a few different genres: the western with the stoic and silent hero, a Yakuza film, a Mad Max-style dystopian film, and chaotic comedy. It’s fun, very colorful, and passionate. It’s actually not what I was expecting from Sion and I really just enjoyed the river of absurdist action and the constantly baffled look on Cage’s face. I wasn’t kidding, his character Hero, is possibly the least outrageous thing in the movie. This movie is very funny. It’s a little silly at times, but still dramatic. I admire the courage of Sion Sono to just make the film he wants to make whether or not anyone is going to like it and frankly, this film put the rest of his film library on the fast track of my watch list. The bright color schemes and wonderful Asian actors are even more incentive to watch and enjoy the film.
The best thing about filmmakers who march to their own tune is that they naturally break out of the pretensions and formulas of most Hollywood films. To me, Sion Sono’s work seems to be the work of someone who is an ardent fan of all films and who wants to pack as much fun into his films as possible, so he puts whatever catches his fancy into it. Sion plays with the constructs of genre and the tropes and cliches of drama to the betterment of the film itself, in my opinion. It’s also about finding yourself and finding a way to heal. The ghosts in Ghostland are the ones in our heads.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is an operatic and absurdist comedy genre romp that never takes itself that seriously but is very serious about its intent to find new ground by using the cliches of each genre that is tackled. It’s refreshing that it is a genre film that doesn’t stoop to many of the tropes that are harmful or disrespectful to women. While there is a certain amount of violence, there really isn’t any harsh gore, so it is actually a film that you could watch with the whole family or your pets. I read it being compared to the films of Stephen Chow and, while I understand that comparison, it is nowhere near as frenetic as a movie like Kung Fu Hustle, which is another film that I enjoy as well. But like Kung Fu Hustle, it has heart and ultimately succeeds in its aim. To be what it is. It’s a hilarious Western/Yakuza/Dystopian search for meaning in life and healing from past trauma. There’s a lot of trauma at Sundance this year and Sion’s film is no exception. Instead of a very serious drama, he shows it through a genre lens and with a light tone.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND is a wild and tempestuous ride on a ghost galleon where the forces of the seas of the surreal and the absurd clash for supremacy over the soul of mankind.
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND had its world premiere on January 31 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.