Prisoners of the Ghostland

Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)

Prisoners of the Ghostland first published by

Prisoners of the Ghostland, the first English-language film from prolific genre anarchist Sion Sono (Love Exposure, Cold Fish, Tag), begins with balls. More precisely, with a slow zoom into a coin-operated machine full of brightly coloured gum balls, and a smiling Japanese boy in front of it, holding a paper cup also full of gum balls. This sweet scene will be violently disrupted as a man with a sawn-off shotgun (Nicolas Cage) and his aptly named accomplice Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) enter the building – a bank – and hold it up. As the little boy, still smiling, extends his cup of gum balls to Psycho, a bloody massacre ensues, and Cage’s character ends up spending years locked away in a (yep) cage for his part in what happened. 

One day Cage’s character is suddenly released – if not quite freed – to recover Bernice (Sofia Boutella), the missing granddaughter of the Governor (Bill Moseley), and is made to wear a locked leather suit that will explode if he tries in any way to harm Bernice or fails to return within five days. He is credited as Hero, and does gradually become one, but when asked early in the film who he is, his reply is, “Nobody – just a guy looking for a girl”. In other words, this outlaw on the road to redemption is that archetypal oater figure, the Man With No Name, surrounded by gunmen in cowboy hats. There is even, in homage to the whole Django cycle, a scene where a suddenly revealed gattling gun is used to mow down adversaries in large numbers. 

Yet Hero’s chosen means of transport is not a horse, but a car – or if he could really have his way, a pushbike. And the setting is a place named Samurai Town, full of Japanese swordsmen (including Tak Sakaguchi’s Yasujiro) and imprisoned sex workers in old-style yūkaku, So Prisoners of the Ghostland is both spaghetti and noodle western, recalling Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) even as it mixes and matches western and eastern actors to reflect its hybrid, transnational production. Time works strangely here. Despite clear generic affiliations to the oater and chanbara, the story is unfolding not in the past, but rather in a post-apocalyptic future, with Hero playing both Mad Max and Snake Plissken on a rescue and recovery mission that might just end in the liberation of oppressed innocents from bondage, or perhaps in his own explosion. While Hero is running against and out of time, the citizens of nearby Ghostland are trying literally to stop the clock, such is their fear of a second nuclear disaster  to follow the one that decades earlier reduced their community to a wasteland – and so this film aligns itself with Sono’s earlier Himizu (2011), The Land of Hope (2012) and The Whispering Star (2015) in its post-Fukushima anxieties about the destructive effects of radioactive fallout. Sono is deconstructing – and then rolling back together again – the detritus from other films and other myths to tell his own new tale of a Hero who must make peace with his (physical as well as emotional) losses and with the ghosts of his past in order to forge a future, previously unimaginable, in which Samurai Town could become “a beautiful place one day”, rather than a prison-house for all.

The key note here, though, is crazy, which Sono handled just fine in his punkish Why Don’t You Play In Hell? (2013), but pulls off less compellingly or convincingly here. Japanese and Chinese actors are made to deliver lines in English that are difficult to understand, there are ritualised songs that do not cross the cultural divide well, Cage at times seems unsure what he is doing (a reflection of a script that is not always coherent, let alone tight), and one sequence shows the Ghostlanders working through the night to get their vehicles roadworthy, only for the ensuing cross-country dash never actually to materialise. The impression is given of a challenged production that maybe ran out of money mid-way, necessitating a compromised, even confused vision. What does unify Prisoners of the Ghostland, however, are the balls with which it opens, and which will recur frequently – whether in the form of the toys with which masked children and even adults are regularly shown playing, or the ‘testicules’ which Hero is at constant risk of losing (and does in part lose) because of the explosive charges in his crotch, or the colourful spheres that are seen bouncing behind the closing credits. Whether these balls signify what it takes to make a film like this, or maybe what such a film ends up being, is ultimately left for the individual viewer to determine – but those excited by the idea of a collaboration between Sono and Cage may be left surprised by the somewhat uneven results.   

strap: Sion Sono’s first English-language film is an East-West hybrid of oater, chanbara and post-apocalyptic action, starring Nicolas Cage

© Anton Bitel