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► Prisoners of the Ghostland is in UK cinemas from 17 September.
The best to be said for Prisoners of the Ghostland is that it has a clear sense of its own absurdity. The project was conceived and written by two US-based fanboys (their press-kit statement tells us that their initial inspirations were “the cherished action and horror films of our youth … The Wild Bunch, The Road Warrior [ie, Mad Max], The Evil Dead, Conan, the Barbarian, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) and went into pre-production in early 2019. The process was derailed by director Sono Sion’s heart attack, and filming began only towards the end of 2019, with Sofia Boutella as a replacement female lead; no Covid-19 lockdowns in Japan at the time, so the shoot and post-production went according to schedule. At the Sundance premiere this year the fanboy audience reacted with glee; the mainstream press and public, not so much.
Like most films specifically designed to appeal to easily pleased fans of action/ horror/fantasy movies, it falls short in many ways. The nameless anti-hero played by Nicolas Cage – he introduces himself as ‘Nobody’ at one point – is first seen holding up a bank in tandem with his henchman Psycho (Nick Cassavetes), then confined in the town jail wearing nothing but a Japanese fundoshi loincloth. Next thing he’s being press-ganged into service by the town’s American Governor (Bill Moseley in a white suit, seemingly channelling the figurehead of a well-known fried chicken franchise), who locks him into leather armour with built-in bombs to control his behaviour and/ or kill him if he absconds, and sends him into the lawless outlands to retrieve his missing love Bernice (Sofia Boutella).
Since the anti-hero has neither backstory nor psychological profile, the opening bank job is needed to establish his criminal credentials – and to launch the laborious story arc that will culminate in his redemption as a damaged hero. Bank-job flashbacks recur throughout, with particular attention to a smiling child who is fixated on a gumball dispensing machine; the machine, inevitably, takes a shotgun blast so that Sono can fill the screen with a CGI image of multi-coloured gumballs, purely to add to the visual flash, while the small boy is obviously intended to symbolise something – innocence? The anti-hero’s remorse? Incipient tooth decay? The writers’ decision to go for ‘archetypes’ (some would say clichés) rather than character-based storytelling puts more pressure on the production design: Isomi Toshihiro comes through with a knowingly fake pleasure-quarter for the town (a mix of old Yoshiwara and old Times Square) and a showpiece clocktower set for the oppressed people of the ‘ghostland’.
The out-of-town dangers, both complicated and uninteresting, include one defeated tribe for whom time has stopped and several varieties of ‘ghost’, marauding nihilists who have all survived near-death experiences. All will be extremely familiar to anyone who has seen Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The anti-hero finds Bernice within minutes of arriving, but she has been reduced to mute catatonia and needs to be reconditioned before she can be taken back to the Governor. The same goes for the truck that is their potential ride home. Over the whole thing hangs a footling allegory about America’s rule over Japan and undischarged responsibility for the A-bombs of 1945, but the version of ‘Japan’ that Sono offers is, as usual, heavy on the kitsch in its visuals and almost entirely dependent on fringe-theatre performance tropes for its action. Cage is given one line from Shakespeare to speak, but the film’s sound and fury truly do signify nothing. The only real surprise is that the chambara swordplay scenes and the Western-style gunfights are so perfunctory, as are the supposedly innovative attempts to combine the two.
Sono (whose given name is correctly transliterated ‘Shion’ – and pronounced that way too) will turn 60 later this year, which makes him probably the oldest director working who is still trying to win the youth vote at the box-office. He started out publishing poetry and making quite striking, ego-driven indie shorts in the 1980s, then dabbled in gay and straight porno in the 1990s. But from Suicide Club (2001) onwards, he made a deliberate decision to emulate Miike Takashi by switching to black-comedy/ exploitation movies. He’s made far more misses than hits, and this film too is overshadowed by earlier Japanese attempts to mix American Western iconography with ‘Japaneseness’, from 1960s action movies by Okamoto Kihachi and Suzuki Seijun to Yamakawa Naoto’s The New Morning of Billy the Kid (1986) and Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).