"Lunatic visionary cult director Sono Sion makes his English-language debut with a post-apocalyptic samurai Western starring Nicolas Cage" is a collection of words that feels like it was lab-created to end up with a kind of heavily self-aware "Weird"-in-square-quotes example of something too knowing and calculated in its what-the-fuck wildness to be authentic. And arguably, Prisoners of the Ghostland - the film that all those words were describing - is exactly that. Sono owns that this was a deliberate calculation designed to get him in the door of American film production before he gets to do the really fucked-up stuff that might scare away the money men. Based on the finished project, I assume he was referring to the running time: at 103 minutes, Ghostland is abnormally short for a Sono film.

As far as being comprehensible or in any way kind to its audience, no, I don't see that at all. While it's true that the film has taken "wacky Nic Cage vehicle" as a license to go for some instant memes - at one point, Cage screams the word "testicles" in a shot cut out from the surrounding monologue just to make sure we get to appreciate how fully ridiculous it is - most of it still feels awfully true to whatever bizarre dream visions have driven most of the other Sono films I've seen.* And while there are certainly individual moments that feel a bit too mannered and self-conscious in their cartoon weirdness, most of it feels like a very genuine dive into feverish madness, a messy comic vision of sin and redemption that creates such powerful impressions of color and atmosphere and place that its whirling, blurry attempts to get at theme feel like they work better than, in any objective sense, they actually do.

The plot is boilerplate: a young woman named Bernice (Sofia Boutella) has gone missing in the Ghostland, a strange desert about a day's ride outside of Samurai Town, which freely combines the architecture and layout of a rural town from Japan's Edo period with the iconography and social structure of a boom town from the American Wild West (the film was shot in Japan after Sono suffered a heart attack that prohibited his original plan to film in Mexico; this shift was of incalculable value to the final product), and all of it done up with an uncomfortably oversaturated plastic sheen that makes the whole thing feel like it was built inside a shopping mall. The Governor (Bill Moseley), Bernice's adopted father, wants her back, so he makes a deal with a criminal (Cage) who has been in prison for years following a disastrous, violent bank robbery, which is depicted as an ethereal, play-room collage of primary colored costumes and props against stark white sets, and which gets revisited a few times as part of the criminal's haunted dreams. If I needed to come up with a single way to describe the effect of Sono's filmmaking - not just in Prisoners of the Ghostland, but in general - I think I might pick the way he uses a slow-motion shot of brightly-colored balls spilling out of a fire-engine red gumball machine, an imagine full of joyful shapes and hues, as a symbol of unending regret and guilt and pain.

Anyway, the Governor makes a deal, which is that the criminal will rescue Bernice, and in exchange the Governor won't kill him using an explosive-laced gimp suit. It's not a very good deal. It's enough for the criminal to head into the wasteland, where he encounters a gang of nuclear zombies and a town of post-nuclear cultists, who remember the time that a nuclear event destroyed all the world around them, and treat it with a ritualistic pageantry somewhere halfway between cultural memory and children's nursery rhyme. As part of rescuing Bernice, who has been traumatised into muteness, the criminal must find away to liberate the inhabitants of the town from the memory of their nuclear suffering. A reminder that this film by a Japanese filmmaker with mostly Japanese extras is using an American movie star and Hollywood narrative tropes.

Of course "Sono is using Cage to demand that America help Japan recover from the psychic scarring of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" is a reductive, shitty reading of the film - it's one of the readings, but this is not a film that skimps on offering up available readings. Mostly, it really does seem to be about the impossible pleasure of mixing and matching the iconography of samurai movies (all of them, though there are certain shots that reminded me so much of Kurosawa's Yojimbo that I refuse to believe it's  an accident), American Westerns, and Italian Road Warrior knock-offs, though not actually The Road Warrior itself (though there's certainly a kind of funhouse mirror version of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome living in all of this). The best of this is all centered on the Governor, played impeccably by Moseley with a delectable humid Suthun drawl as cartoonish as his impeccable white suit and grandfatherly beard (he actually has the best reading of the word "testicle" in the movie, all apologies to Cage), a weird figure made even weirder by surrounding him with the technicolor excess of Samurai town, and his small army of American and Japanese gunslingers and geishas, who react to him with group movement like the chorus of a genre-fillm staging of a Greek play. And this does mean that the middle of the film, in the Ghostland, loses some of the film's aggressive cinematic energy. Sono and cinematographer Tanikawa Sohei and production designer Isomi Toshihiro throttle back on the purity of the colors, creating something more diffuse and brown, tinged with corrosive blues. This is, of course, entirely on purpose, to create a strong, immediate contrast between the shocking artifice of Samurai Town and the lifeless decay of the Ghostland (though I am ecstatic to report that the pageant-like group movement not only persists, it increases). But it's still a little disappointing.

At any rate, even when it's at its most sedate, Prisoners of the Ghostland is going pretty hard; not "peak Sono" hard, but what we get is still a lot more than you see in the vast majority of American movies - of movies, in general. Whether it ever gets to narrative or emotional points that aren't strictly abstract and communicated in a primarily mythic mode- but then, it doesn't really need to. It is, very self-consciously and across all of its generic touchstone, a florid myth, dressed up with the most delirious cinematic style, in color, and set design and blocking. It is a garish movie for a garish world, and I absolutely loved it, even when I felt like it was choking me on all the artifice.




*Which is certainly not most of them, given how prolific the director has been. And it does include his inexplicably sedate and nice 2012 film The Land of Hope, which I did not appreciate at the time for how wildly far out of character it was.