Nicolas Cage described Prisoners of the Ghostland as “the wildest movie I’ve ever made.” Considering the actor’s list of genre credits, that’s an instant eyebrow-raising statement, and the plot description seems to back up that claim.
Cage plays Hero, a robber sprung from jail and tasked with retrieving Bernice (Sofia Boutella), the adoptive granddaughter of The Governor (Bill Moseley). He’ll have to cross the Ghostland and bring her back to Samurai Town within a matter of days, or his rigged suit will explode. Throw in an East meets West genre blend, and you have the makings of an insane experience that goes off the rails.
Yet director Sion Sono (Tag, Suicide Club), making his English-language feature debut, doesn’t see it that way.
Speaking with Bloody Disgusting through a translator, Sono revealed that his focus was on the visuals instead of wild storytelling. “For me, this is more a visually artistic film than being wild, and making something wild wasn’t the intention. I wanted to bring beautiful art somehow.”
Sono explains how his vision drastically shifted once the production needed to relocate, “When we were shooting in Mexico, my idea was to create the classic Western style. But since it changed to Japan for the locations, I decided to make something extreme and extremely colorful. That was my decision.”
It meant that the visuals became the most essential component for the director: “My intention was that I wanted to have something impressive, in terms the visual image of the film itself, more than the details of the story. So, I almost feel like I tried to create an amusement park or something like that. The visuals were more important this time.”
That focus on visuals means that a different side of Sono’s creativity side came to the forefront. “Before I decided to become a film director, I was a poet, and that’s what I wanted to do. I have creative ideas inside in terms of poetry, and those ideas stay inside of me. So, maybe those come out whenever I create something new. And then, as you pointed out, the Prisoners of the Ghostland should have all those elements of poetry.”
Case in point? There is a moment where Hero comes across a desolate little desert town where its residents fixate on the central clock tower. It’s never outright mentioned in the story, but that has a deeper meaning for Sono: “Let’s take a look at the clock tower. The clock points out at 8:14 AM, one minute before 8:15, which is the time that bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. So, the Ghostlanders are pulling the clock to keep the clock from moving. It stays there because they think that in their imagination, once it hits 8:15, then the bomb will be dropped. They don’t want to see that, so that’s why they try to keep the clock from moving. Also, the whole image of Ghostland itself came from the image of Fukushima after the earthquake. There are quite a few of those ideas that you can find if you ask.”
Hero may be the lead character in Prisoners, but Bernice plays a pivotal role and outshines Hero’s heroics in some ways; her story is robustly satisfying. When asked about her particular arc and how it touches on a recurring theme in Sono’s work of bucking oppression, the director responded, “What you’re pointing out is exactly [as] I was thinking and what it is. When we were editing, there were some versions that almost had Sofia and the Bernice character as a main character. That’s how important that Bernice is for the story. And in that edit, Bernice was trying more to fight against the Governor for her rights, which was clearer. I actually liked that version too. Maybe someday, there might be a director’s cut with all of those elements and having Sofia and Bernice upfront in the story.
Prisoners of the Ghostland releases in theaters and on VOD and Digital September 17, 2021.