In a 2016 documentary about his life and creative process, there is a scene where filmmaker Sion Sono shows a barely completed painting, that he had been working on for months, to the crew filming him and asks dispassionately if they think it’s good art or not. The off-camera interviewer, clearly confused by the sudden and direct question sputters out that he doesn’t know. Sono sharply responds that it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad and that it only matters if it expresses emotion. He then chucks the large canvas across the room with as much care as one throws a soiled tissue into the trash. This peculiar moment reveals a lot about how Sono views his work and it’s all I could think about after I watched his latest directorial effort, the post-apocalyptic “East meets West” mashup, PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND.
The film, which marks the English language debut for the idiosyncratic Japanese director certainly has the sort of plot one would expect from someone who has made their entire career with hard to classify, genre-hopping films, like TOKYO TRIBE, LOVE EXPOSURE and WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, that cult movie fans excitedly lap up. The story is set in a neon-lit frontier town where geisha and samurai rub elbows with cowboys and ranchers. The corrupt local land baron’s adopted daughter has run off out into the wastelands to escape his overbearing control. In his anger and frustration at her disappearance, he tasks a nameless convict with heading into the unknown and bringing her back to civilization. To ensure that the job is completed, the convict is strapped into a suit covered in explosives that will detonate in a few days’ time if he hasn’t returned safely with the wayward girl. See? That straightforward genre plot, when dressed up with interesting details and flourishes from one of international cinema’s most unique voices feels like a perfect introduction for Sono’s talents to the masses. Yet, the finished film doesn’t completely work. Why not? Well, a film is a work of art and creation- no different from a painting at its basic conceptual level. So, let’s examine it through that perspective and see where it falters and triumphs.
A painting needs different pieces to be properly created: (to keep it as succinct as possible) it needs a canvas, paints, and an idea. If PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND was a potential painting, then Sono had most of the proper tools readily at his disposal. He had a very game cast of main performers- Bill Moseley (THE DEVIL’S REJECTS), dressed and sounding like he’s got an audition for the role of “Boss Hog” in a DUKES OF HAZZARD reboot, is clearly having a ball as the villainous land baron “The Governor”. Cult action hero Tak Sakaguchi (RE:BORN) is perfectly cast as The Governor’s stoic sword-wielding enforcer “Yasujiro.” Sofia Boutella (KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE) is enigmatically compelling as “Bernice”, the missing person the story hinges on, and Nicolas Cage (LEAVING LAS VEGAS), as the nameless criminal turned hero, is a perfect lead for a Sion Sono film with his ability to flip from complete vulnerable sincerity to gonzo absurdity at a moment’s notice. These are the paints on Sono’s palette. He drags them hurriedly and in broad, jagged strokes across a primed canvas filled with exquisitely detailed backdrops. Sono quickly defines motivations while you marvel at the costumes and set designs of the film’s two primary locations: the western town that looks like it was crossbred with an ancient Japanese fishing village that had been reimagined as a theme park and the dusty blown-out remains of a nuclear landscape that would look right at home in a “Mad Max” film. It seems very intentional that the leads of the film all wear singular colors in these environments. They are elemental, larger-than-life impressions that pop from the noise of the background.
The colors are vivid and the background is packed with detail and ideas but for all the chaotic energy- the strange bit characters, the musical asides, the loose dreamy way that the backstories are presented, Nic Cage (going full “Cage”) screaming “Banzai” and unironically threatening to “f***ing karate chop” someone …it all feels at times weirdly stagnant. The story never stretches beyond the two primary locations and the second act of the film is noticeably uneventful. So all these bold choices just become a visual noise, messy paint-splattered without rhyme or reason until near the end when hurried strokes of action try to form them back into something unique but recognizable before it all sets and the painting is done. This clearly is a script problem. The script is the sketch that goes down on the canvas before any paint is poured after all. Here that sketch, by first-time screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Safai, is too ill-defined. There are tangents never followed up on, wild ideas quickly brought up and then dropped just as fast. The structure is weak and poorly formed expecting Sono’s skillful hand and the talent of his cast to overcome those flaws and they almost do to their credit.
There is a lot of fun to be had in the messiness of PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND. It has genuinely hilarious moments (any film that has a football helmet-wearing, sword-swinging Nic Cage can’t help but be funny, after all), exhilarating fight scenes (designed by Tak Sakaguchi himself), and a lot of jaw-droppingly beautiful imagery on display. For some, that will be enough. Others though, will look at the film and see a garishly sloppy mess. The reality is- it’s all those things. It’s well crafted, yet strangely hurried and cheap at the same time. It’s fun and chaotic but also has moments where it is utterly inert and lackadaisical- a moving contradiction.
Is PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND good or bad, though? Honestly, I’m not sure either way but it does feel alive and full of manic emotion. To Sion Sono and those who love his work, that’s all that really matters, I suppose. Everyone else will likely be caught off guard by it, sputtering trying to make sense of what they are seeing. (3/5)
PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND, available in theaters, VOD and Digital this Friday, Sept. 17