Nouveau Shamanic Western Kabuki: Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland”
For some time now, Japanese hellraising provocateur Sion Sono has had a not-so-secret mission to upstage Quentin Tarantino’s appropriation of Japanese cinema by leaning fully into the caricatured version of Japanese culture that shows up in the American director’s work. From the appearance of stolen costumes in 2013’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? to the schoolgirls at the whim of film conventions and clichés handed down by the director-as-god in Tag (2015) and Antiporno (2016), Sono’s been slowly reclaiming the Americanized view of Japanese culture by simply doing everything that Americans put Japanese people through, but in his own extraordinary, violent way. It’s a sly sort of dare to the foreign audience: well, you think we do this, so here it is. More of it than you can handle. Sono’s films frequently feel like marathons and/or hostage situations. He sticks you with violent psychopaths or kids making all the wrong choices, and refuses to let you leave until the logical extreme endpoint has finally been found and wrestled to the ground.
This means that Sono’s work, like that of fellow sacred-cow butchers John Woo, Álex de la Iglesia, and Michael Bay, doesn’t feel like a collection of tableaux so much as a ride in a car going too fast for too long. Motion and momentum are frequently the name of the game, and even though Prisoners of the Ghostland, Sono’s long-awaited English-language debut that doubles as a reunion between Nicolas Cage and Nick Cassavetes (co-stars of Woo’s Face/Off ), has a number of stunning visual ideas, it’s the cumulative effect that’s most impressive. When it’s over you’ll look back over the whole film as if trying to replay how you wrecked your car before conceding that it doesn’t really matter how it happened, the point is you’re walking home with broken bones.
Written improbably enough by actors Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, Prisoners of the Ghostland looks superficially like standard VOD fare, down to its grimy grey color palette during half of the narrative and its lead, the undisputed king of the straight-to-video market. Cage plays the Hero, who just got out of jail for holding up a bank, during which his partner Psycho (Cassavetes) killed innocent people. In a Freudian spin on Escape from New York (1981) and/or Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988), a crime boss who goes by The Governor (Bill Moseley, Rob Zombie’s Clark Gable) has rigged the Hero’s testicles with explosives and will detonate them if he can’t go rescue his granddaughter (Sofia Boutella) from the wastelands beyond the neon carnival city he calls home. It barely matters what happens next, the point is for images and genres to crash into each other like cars in a demolition derby.
The premise is pure pulp, the photography is either drained to show the dreadful conditions of living poverty or lit like second-hand Bava to show the opulent lives of the immoral, and Nicolas Cage is a man rigged to explode. It’s as catchy a movie as you’re likely to encounter these days, post-Fury Road when all the good action movies go straight to video because everyone’s afraid of coming up short topping it. The little guys have never much minded that they don’t have the budget to do it right, so a movie by Raouf Abd El Aziz or Dimitri Logothetis will pack a thousand fist fights and shoot outs into 90 minutes because there’s no producer over their shoulder to tell them not to. Sono’s not only not bound by anyone’s idea of a commercial hit, he thrives on having a zany idea to chase down. Here, he seems to be showing, well, whoever needs to be taught the lesson, that it’s possible to make a movie swimming in homage that nevertheless develops its own attitudes and ideas. Cage’s criminal Hero, Moseley’s warped Colonel, Boutella’s geisha Pinocchio, none of these are new ideas per se, but Sono doesn’t ever direct like he’s not excitedly making the whole thing up as he goes. This is a movie with a more cohesive color scheme and a self-consciously zanier attitude than most Sono, who usually tells the same joke over and over again. Indeed, this film seems to take its cues not from Sono’s auteurist obsessions, not from the script’s hodgepodge of 42nd street archetypes, but from Cage’s energy as performer and symbol.
Cage went from peripheral arthouse auxiliary to Oscar-winning Superman to VOD underdog over the course of his 40 years on movie screens. In the last decade, financial troubles forced him to stop being choosy about what he agreed to appear in, but he never stopped acting like he was the only actor who had really figured out the secret to life as an actor. No part is too small for frothing, insane interpretations that change forgettable crime films to minor classics through his alchemical approach to ghost directing by being such a presence that the movies simply change shape to accommodate him. Look at the difference between Ghostrider, made in 2007 at the height of his powers as a matinee idol making safe adventure films, and Ghostrider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011), directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. Cage realized that with directors more open to the degenerate power of cinema, not trying to shepherd franchises or protect Stan Lee’s money, he could have a fairer share of the canvas. Working with Sono may be the pinnacle of his VOD years, because unlike a lot of his other directors, Sono doesn’t embarrass, and he doesn’t put quotation marks around the performance. He gives Cage all the space he needs, never becoming self-parody as he occasionally does in films by less interesting directors. The idea of a “Nicolas Cage performance” is one that a lot of unimaginative journeymen pay scale for, but this is the genuine article. It’s got its share of Elvis high kicks and solos, but Cage never loses the sense of being adrift in a world he didn’t create. Whether it’s an unexpectedly emotional reunion with the irradiated ghost of Psycho, or making an honest stab at the stunt work (this is the first time in almost ten years where Cage appears to keep pace with his doubles), he’s fully on this movie’s wavelength and Sono’s fully on his. In choosing to play so wildly with someone else’s conceptions of cinema (even if only to make them his), Sono has allowed disreputable ideas to flourish in his cinema. By joining forces with someone like Cage, he’s risked making his adventurous cinema look schematic, but this is just another day in paradise for the director, one more wild and fabulous, generic and formal experiment that happens to have the shape of something “ripping off” Kill Bill (2003–04) and Mad Max (1979) that you’d get out of a DVD vending machine in a grocery store parking lot. The stars truly aligned for this one.
Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.