A few months ago, during the fall festival season, FilmHounds published a review for Sion Sono’s Red Post on Escher Street. The review was a spoiler-free critique on Sono’s appreciation for the craft of filmmaking. Ironically enough, no one knew at the time when the next Sono venture would come out. After a heart-attack in early 2019, Prisoners of the Ghostland seemed like clogged pipe-dream, awaiting to reach distribution and global success. Now the moment has finally come. Years of anticipation and eager patience have finally payed off for Sono’s glorious behemoth that is his English language debut. A moment that can be best described as Sion Sono once again taking a grand middle finger to Western industrialisation and entertainment culture.
Similar to his radical examination of the Roman-porno genre in Antiporno, Sono essentially deconstructs and criticises the infiltration of western culture in a post-atom bomb Japanese society. It’s a bold genre piece, that runs of rapid-fire satire and quips to create its commentary. It is also a film that visually mocks the American mainstream with frenetic visuals. The film is purposefully artificial in its colour grading, emulating the stereotypical hyper-masculine blockbusters one would regularly find at a Redbox. The soundtrack is consumed by temp music, a common occurrence in popular American productions. Even the purposeful lack of blood and other gory bits from the Western characters featured in the film offers some insight on the tameness and domesticated reality of mainstream American-centric entertainment. It isn’t until a scene involving one gnarly sword fight accompanied by Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle, where the bloodshed finally lashes out. One could even argue that this scene is the central crux of what Ghostland is attempting to comment on, in terms of the artificiality and production of Western culture against Asian societies.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is a film that highlights the unrest of an entire generation of grief-stricken individuals who are tired of the infiltration of Western civilisation. It’s a film that provides allusions to the atomic bomb and the fear of another return of death and chaos. Images of the bomb are casually featured within the film, when both setting up conflict and introducing locations for immersive world building. It’s the fear of the bomb returning that halts these characters from moving forward. It’s the mockery of American-centric conventions that create a form of cinematic revenge. Sono attempts to free his characters by taking back the spaghetti western to its rightful place in Japan. “I’m not a prisoner” recites Bernice and Suzi during the film’s iconic climactic finale.
When Sono introduced the film at the festival, he made it abundantly clear that he wanted Sundance to be the place to screen Ghostland. In some ways, Sono is professionally trolling his audience by premiering his film in the most world-renowned American festival out there. But even with all of the overboard mockery and satire, the narrative and logical fallacies of the traditional three-act structure slowly start to fall apart against its social critique. It becomes almost too filtered with self-referential concepts and visual allusions, where Ghostland becomes increasingly overwhelming in tone and narrative.
Sion Sono is a visionary mad man — an artist who continues to strive in his stylistically obtuse films that feature riveting social commentary. Prisoners of the Ghostland is no expectation, and while it ironically falls for some of the conventions it clearly mocks, the film more than justifies its existence with an unhinged Cage performance and some kick-ass production design. Oh, how great it is to live in a time where one of the greatest filmmakers working today can create one giant slander post towards western culture, premiere the film at a renowned western festival, and get away with it with barely anyone truly noticing.
Prisoners of the Ghostland premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the Premieres category. The film will screen again virtually on February 2nd. RLJE Films will release Prisoners of the Ghostland in the coming months.