Festivals

{Sundance Film Festival} Prisoners of the Ghostland – First Look Review

Japanese director Sion Sono revealed he purposely toned down the craziness for his first film in the English language. Prisoners of the Ghostland is a hero’s journey in between East and West starring Nicolas Cage. And while it isn’t as considerably gory as you’d expect from a Sono movie, muted, it is not.

Penned by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, the movie is one of the most anticipated at this year’s Sundance. Shot in Japan, Ghostland is an aesthetically delightful, over-the-top epic tale combining eastern and western mythologies. The fictional Samurai Town is where all influences coalesce. It’s Shakespeare meets Akira Kurosawa meets Sergio Leone meets John Ford, tied together with Sono’s signature brutality and unique tonal shifts.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is a derivative delight

Stemming from the most classic of the protagonist’s narratives, Prisoners of the Ghostland employs archetypical characters inhabiting a post-nuclear, arid Japan resembling the American Far West. On one hand, renowned thief Hero (Cage). On the other, the Governor, a soap opera villain in a white oil tycoon ensemble played by Bill Moseley. 

The Governor tasks Hero with rescuing his adopted granddaughter Bernice, portrayed by Sofia Boutella. If Hero succeeds within a ridiculously short time-frame, he will walk a free man. If he tries to escape or harm Bernice, his testicles and what is attached to them will explode, courtesy of a futuristic explosive black leather suit.

Echoes of The Searchers resonate throughout, as a sonnet-reciting desert cult à la Mad Max: Fury Road abducts Bernice. Preventing a giant clock from going forward in time, these settlers carry the trauma of an atomic tragedy. Helpless, they await a Messiah-like figure to set them free.

Bernice and the geishas of Prisoners of the Ghostland

The movie revolves around regaining one’s natural freedom, as Bernice hints at in the prologue. She aims to break the shackles of the patriarchy, revoltingly embodied by The Governor unwinding in a geisha harem. Despite accepting Hero’s help, this female protagonist is anything but a damsel in distress. She makes this very clear by dancing her way to freedom through sweet combat moves. And what she fights for is bigger than her own motives. 

Bernice seeks revenge for a history of abuse at the filthy hands of Moseley’s character. But she wants to help her fellow sisters, too. A cohort of women who seem to be under the influence of this male master figure. Among them, loose cannon Suzi (Yuzuka Nakaya).

Often accused of reinforcing sexist tropes in his previous movies, this time Sono has crafted thought-provoking female characters. His riotous heroines navigate a male-dominated, misogynistic society. In such hostile environments, they’re left with little choice but to cave to their darkest impulses.

As fast-paced and exquisitely exploitative as it is, Prisoners of the Ghostland doesn’t leave a similar mark with his female characters. Nor with his other characters, for that matter. Samurai Yasujiro (Tak Sakaguchi,) especially, manages to convey so much in a limited time, he deserved a bigger arc.

Nicolas Cage And Sion Sono is a wonderful match made in hell

When it comes to Hero, the protagonist relies on Cage’s ridiculously powerful enunciation. This is a trait he has pushed the pedal on in recent movies, such as Mandy and Color Out of Space. The multi-award winner brings his peculiar delivery to Sono’s movie too, confirming he’s the only actor able to turn a word like ‘testicle’ on its head and make it into a battlecry. As far as his backstory, the audience doesn’t need to know or care much. Briefly addressed in a flashback scene with previous crime partner Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), this, too, falls into the traditional journey of an anti-hero.

Sono’s latest movie is rather unoriginal in his array of characters, but that is beside the point. If this firework spectacle hits its target — and it mostly does — it’s all in the masterful execution. Amping up this wild tale, the showstopping production design by Toshihiro Isomi, who is able to create entire worlds within confined sets.

When the show is over, and those universes collapse in a pyrotechnic finale, the audience is there to watch. They might not love Prisoners of the Ghostland, but they cannot divert their eyes. You’ll find this is the case with most Sono’s movies.

Check out more of our Sundance coverage here.