Who is Japan’s craziest filmmaker right now? I say it’s Sion Sono. His films include the karate gangsta rap musical Tokyo tribe and Why don’t you play in hell?, a satire about a mad filmmaker who, along with his film crew, murders a whole bunch of Yakuza gangsters for their art. His latest film, Prisoners of Ghost Country, is her first film primarily in English and her first to play in Fort Worth theaters, and writing about it is the unexpected highlight of my week.
The film is set in Samurai Town, a place filled with American geishas and Japanese cowboys, and directed by the Governor (Bill Moseley), a man who walks around dressed as Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard. Our nameless hero (Nicolas Cage) is the prisoner of this man, a murderous bank robber who has constantly escaped law enforcement. Despite this, the governor is ready to let him go so that he can find Bernice (Sofia Boutella), the adopted granddaughter and part of his harem – yes, eww – who escaped from the governor’s house to the first time in his life. To make sure the hero doesn’t run away, the governor attached bombs to the guy’s body, including two to his testicles, which will explode if our hero gets an erection. The hero speaks for all of us when he says, “Really?
Not weird enough for you? This movie is full of things designed to make you say, “What ?! I’m talking about a flashback that recreates a nuclear explosion in the interpretive dance. I’m talking about radioactive samurai zombies blocking the hero’s path to Ghostland, from which no traveler returns. I’m talking about the hero picking up a football helmet and approaching it with Hamlet’s “Alas poor Yorick” speech. I’m talking about a chorus of disembodied heads singing the governor’s serenade with the bluegrass song “My Grandfather’s Clock”. Time is the center of a heap of weird religious rituals carried out in this world, as the governor’s suite of geishas, gunslingers and sword fighters believe he is the living embodiment of time for him. – even, while the people of Ghostland prevent a massive clock from moving because they believe the world will end if time ever begins. At one point, the Governor punishes his other granddaughter (Yuzuka Nakaya) by immobilizing her and impersonating a clock for the duration of Bernice’s absence.
For once, Sono is not writing the screenplay for his own film (one of his screenwriters, Reza Sixo Safai, was the lead actor in A girl comes home alone at night), and he keeps us going with his eye for a striking visual. The opening scene takes place in a bank with an antiseptic white interior that is brought to life by a huge gumball machine. The hero finds Bernice among a row of smashed department store mannequins in the ruins of Ghostland, some of whom are real women wearing mannequin parts on their skin.
Many of the Japanese actors here are clearly reciting English lines that they have learned phonetically. Partly for this reason, the acting is sometimes a bad caricature, or it would be in a movie that was almost conventional. In this context, I don’t know what a good or bad performance is. Cage himself plays him mostly like he’s the only sane guy in the madhouse. There are all kinds of satirical and cultural references that I have no idea about, and pretty much the only part that is readable is sword fighting, especially when the governor’s henchman (Tak Sakaguchi) sees a bunch of his guys try to rape his sister and basically kill them. Maybe it is futile to look for meaning in Prisoners of Ghost Country, if you see it at Grand Berry or at Premiere Cinemas in Burleson. It is a feverish hallucination imagined by a madman who came to our shores to unleash himself. His unbalanced vision will give your mind’s eye something it hasn’t seen.
Prisoners of Ghost Country
With Nicolas Cage and Sofia Boutella. Directed by Sion Sono. Written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai. Unclassified.