Monday, February 01, 2021

Sundance ’21: Prisoners of the Ghostland

Westerns have been taking inspiration from Samurai films—and vice versa—for years, so why not put them together? And who better to do it than a master of chaos like Sion Sono, in his first English language production? In terms of cinematic firsts, Sono in English is up there with “Garbo Talks” for fans of hyper-kinetic genre films. An anti-hero known only as “Hero” is in for a wild ride in Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, which premiered as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Hero is an outlaw, but he is not evil. Unfortunately, he was teamed-up with the aptly named “Psycho,” who suddenly started blowing away customers in the bank they try to rob in the prologue. Eventually, the law caught up with him, but the sinister “Governor” of a weirdly undefined Wild West Japanese town offers him a deal he has to accept. Hero must “rescue” the Governor’s adopted granddaughter, Bernice, who ran off into the dreaded “Ghostland.” It is sort of a radioactive wasteland, in the
Mad Max tradition, but with more radiation and more ghosts.

There will be a few complicating factors for Hero, like the booby-trapped leather jumpsuit the Governor straps him into. The whole thing will self-destruct if he is not back with Bernice in five days. There also happen to be strategically located explosives to regulate his behavior—very strategically, if you follow. He will need her voice to forestall an explosion, but she has been struck dumb by the supernatural power of the Ghostland.

If you know the recent work of Sono and Nic Cage than no review will dissuade you from watching
Ghostland. Happily, their first collaboration lives up to its billing. Honestly, Cage gets his most mime-able rant perhaps ever, which he totally knocks out of the park. Oh, you will know it when you hear it.

Bill Moseley also totally comes to play as the Governor, rocking the white linen suit and chewing the scenery like he hasn’t eaten in a week. Tak Sakaguchi (who literally sliced through hundreds of swordsmen in
Crazy Samurai Musashi) holds up the martial arts standards as Yasuji, the Governor’s conflicted enforcer. He and Hero have a distinctively unpredictable fight scene (with Cage looking less conspicuously body-doubled than in Jiu Jitsu). Sofia Boutella still does not show a heck of a lot of range, but she really doesn’t need to as the mute Bernice. However, she shows off some impressive action chops in the big climatic throwdown.

In terms of theme and tone,
Ghostland will remind a lot of Sono fans of Tokyo Tribe (without the music). Still, he knows how to turn loose Cage for maximum effect. Their pairing raises expectations and they do not disappoint. Highly recommended for fans of Cage, Sono, Weird West, martial arts, and cult cinema in general, Prisoners of the Ghostland screens again tomorrow (2/2), as part of this year’s largely online Sundance.