If you’re not familiar with the Japanese term ero guro (エログロ), you might be puzzled by this film. “Ero” comes for the English word “erotic” and “guro” from grotesque. In neither case is the film really entrenched in the genres. There’s not enough horror for horror fans nor eroticism for someone looking for erotica and there’s even less of a coherent story line for people who like stories that make sense. I guess that’s where the nansensu from ero guro nansensu comes in (エログロナンセンス）。There are some beautiful images here, but Japanese director Sion Sono’s “Prisoners of the Ghostland” might make more sense as an anime.
Even with Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage (“Leaving Las Vegas,” 1995), the characterizations don’t have any more dimension than 2D traditional anime. You almost wish Sono had pushed Cage to be wackier, even more the crazed hero of “Raising Arizona” realm. Instead, this Cage as a low-rent, sun-dried version of Clint Eastwood’s nameless drifter. As the Hero, Cage is picked by The Governor (Bill Moseley) to find his granddaughter, Bernice (Sofia Boutella). She’s somewhere in the Ghostland beyond what looks like a Western set in some city where a major red light district with caged kimono-clad Japanese women are on display and White men are in control.
To insure that Hero won’t be tempted into a sexual dalliance with Bernice, Hero is suited up in a jumpsuit with a difference–explosives near his testicles. This is literally a ball-bursting kind of adventure, but one driven by motored vehicles instead of horses and by artistic whims instead of a logically built universe. There’s also a theme attached to a clock, the kind that ticks and for a few days I had Henry Clay Work’s 1876 “My Grandfather’s Clock” playing in my head.
The film is in both Japanese and English. Understanding only one might make it seem better. I understand both.
One could partially excuse the mix of Japanese and American Western devices and scenery due to the circumstances behind this film. This is Sono’s first English-language project and Sono had a heart attack and emergency surgery during pre-production. To get the film done, the production was done in Japan. The best thing I can say about this production is, I’m looking forward to Cage playing Joe Exotic.
“Prisoners in the Ghostland” is in Japanese and English with English subtitles. The film made its world premiere in Italy and in the US at Sundance on the same day, 31 January 2021.