Tag Archives: Sion Sono

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Mosley, Nick Cassavetes

PLOT: By order of “the Governor”, a nabbed robber must infiltrate the Ghostland to rescue the Governor’s grand-daughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Directed by Sion Sono, featuring Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: “They helped me because I am radioactive.”

This epic line is delivered, epically, by Nicolas Cage, standing atop a grand stairway beneath a massive clock, his right arm shattered, his left testicle likewise. He stands before a crowd of downtrodden souls. Amongst them is the bookish Enoch, volume of Wuthering Heights in hand, as well as the gaunt undertaker who collects souls. Watching from the periphery is Ratman and his Ratmen, a crew of thieving mechanics. Bernice, chalk-limbed and with obsidian-black eyebrows, begins a chant of rebellion. And so, the prisoners of the Ghostland rally, before marching on Samurai Town to depose the evil Governor.

Forgive me if I am telephoning in this review, but I was up until almost two o’clock this morning and arose shortly after six. Though rendering me useless for almost anything else, this primed me perfectly for Sion Sono’s latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Having snaked its way through the festival circuit all this past year (thank you very much, Covid, for keeping me from covering this at Fantasia…), this oddity has finally hit a handful of screens as well as pay-to-stream services. Under-slept and over-caffeinated, I watched, intermittently overcome with awe, perplexion, and hearty guffaws.

“They helped me because I am radioactive.” Even within the confines of this film, the line makes no sense. There is a permeating sense that something deeper is going on here: the growing flashbacks of a robbery gone wrong, the strange drawl-stilted speechifying by the white-suited baddie the Governor, the analogue slide show—narrated by a Greek chorus of the dregs of humanity—recounting the horrific crash between a truck full of convicts and a truck full of nuclear waste. There are moments of surreal whimsy, as when a hail of bullets cracks open a gumball dispenser, its candy-coated contents clattering in slow-motion throughout the carnage; or when Nicolas Cage’s “Hero” catches a burnt-out football helmet and busts out his gravedigger audition for Hamlet. Yes, the minds behind this story aimed for a much-too-muchness, half hitting the mark, half sputtering into the fizzly “What the?” of miscalibration.

I should be slapping the “Recommended” tag on this; I should have had my “Must See!” entreaty swatted aside by more reasonably-minded site administrators. However, as much as I enjoyed watching Prisoners of the Ghostland, it suffers from one or more of the following: too much incoherency, not enough incoherency, too much crazy, and not enough crazy. Nicolas Cage, as always, delivers; but his too much is only mostly enough. Its Sergeo Leoneciousness borders on Jodorowskity, but never quite makes the final leap. As a movie, Prisoners falls short, constituting merely a wacky, weird exercise in eccentricity and nuclear-samurai-symbolism; but in memory, I have little doubt it shall blossom into a strange patchwork of giddily campy memories of a Hero, played by Nicolas Cage, whose force of will makes me believe that he is, indeed, radioactive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No movie with Nicolas Cage, directed by the wonderfully weird Japanese director Sion Sono, should be this taxing, drawn out, and plainly boring…  Cage and Sono are truly kindred nutcases: they are artists who do not question themselves, and while they have a sense of humor stranger than we can comprehend, they are too sincere for irony. But ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is truly just a beginning; a false start to what should, and still could be one of the greatest cinematic collaborations since sound met motion.”–Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL 2021, FEATURES PART 1: FIVE FILMS FOR YOU

The North Bend Film Festival opens today and runs through July 18. Online ticketing is available, but is geo-locked to residents of Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In the future, these movies may be available through alternate venues—stay tuned to this website for updates.

Swan Song (dir. Todd Stephens)— Opening night feature Swan Song is the most shamelessly sentimental and fabulous biopic I’ve had the pleasure of watching. My greatest complaint is the by-the-books competence of its actual crafting, but that quiet framework allows Udo Kier to re-enact the heartwarming final days of Pat Pitsenberger, hair stylist for the well-heeled and well-connected country-club set of 1980s Ohio.

Pat’s unabashedly gay mien makes up for Swan Song‘s rote style. We first meet him suffering the tedious indignities of nursing home life. Pat’s daily routine of unfolding and refolding the facility’s paper napkins is interrupted by a lawyer summoning him to ‘do one last favor for an old client: style her hair for her funeral. His journey from living death on Sandusky’s outskirts into the remnants of its underground gay havens is bittersweet, but heavily dosed with witty flamboyance (Pat is surprised when a store clerk recognizes him; she exclaims, “Who could forget ‘the Liberace of Sandusky’?” Pat’s response: “Was I that butch?”).

Swan Song also explores the gay community’s dramatic culture change from forty years ago to the relative openness of today. Watching two dads playing with their kids in the park, Pat observes “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay any more.” Sentimental, perhaps, but proud as well. Much like the glorious queens and queers of days gone by.

Luchadoras (dir. Paola Calvo, Patrick Jasim)—Life in Cuidad Juarez is hard, and even harder for women. The city is home of countless unsolved murders, and a masculine attitude with a mean streak. Luchadoras explores these phenomena through the lens of three “women fighters,” as the title’s translation makes clear. I initially felt this clarification was superfluous. It was only after watching the whole documentary that I realized its necessity. These women fight for everything: their livelihood, family, and self-esteem. That’s what attracts them to the world of luchadora combat: at least on the ring, they fight on their own terms, with their own kind, and for their own satisfaction.

One fighter, Lady Candy, is trying to attain partial custody of her children after they were kidnapped by their abusive father and brought to live in El Paso. Baby Starlight is aging, so her chances of Continue reading NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL 2021, FEATURES PART 1: FIVE FILMS FOR YOU

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CRAZY SAMURAI MUSASHI (2020)

[AKA Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1]

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Yûji Shimomura

FEATURING:

PLOT: The titular character kills 588 samurai and mercenaries because he’s Crazy Samurai Musashi.

COMMENTS: Yûji Shimomura’s third feature film, Crazy Samurai Musashi, is basically a master’s thesis in fight choreography. It isn’t weird, unless you consider a seventy-seven-minute, uninterrupted cut of a swordsman uninterruptedly cutting up his foes to be weird. And it could be argued it isn’t really even a movie, because no semblance of “story arc” exists, as highlighted by the epilogue in which the older (and still crazy) samurai Musashi slashes his way through a fresh batch of goons because That’s Just What He Does. So what is this thing?

This thing begins with a fairly traditional prologue involving novel cinematic practices like “zooms”, “cuts”, “editing”, and dialogue. A clan of samurai want vengeance against Musashi for killing two of their leaders. They’ve gathered the whole gang together, as well as three-hundred mercenaries, so as to make sure that the job gets done. As the men gather their courage, a small boy, the scion of the clan’s elder, is distracted by a butterfly. Musashi’s arrival is advertised by his daring leap from a nearby tree–during which he slices the butterfly in twain and kills the young boy. The long take starts right after Musashi commands, “Let’s get this started!”

Having read up a little on Yûji Shimomura, I am not surprised by the fighting: his main contribution to cinema has been stunt and fight coordination. What caught my eye is that Sion Sono was involved (he wrote this thing). Sono is an oddball among oddballs, with an eye for excess and strange humor.

The excess is covered by Shimomura—nearly six hundred deaths occur on screen. The humor crops up in the occasional interludes between sword fights. Musashi always finds water canteens during lulls in the combat, almost like video game power-ups. He has an amusingly civil exchange with a young woman in a wood shed, and is miffed when she breaks her promise to keep quiet as he’s catching his breath. He shows obvious confusion when he tries tallying his kills halfway through the massacre. And then there’s my favorite: Musashi increasingly busts out the “Bring it!” gesture at the remaining fighters as the body count rises.

Watching Tak Sakaguchi exhaust himself was itself an exhausting experience. He’s a credit to combat actors: even as he grows more and more breathless, he maintains a steely look and a flair for body language. Crazy Samurai Musashi doesn’t quite work as a movie, but it’s a must-see for anyone making a combat film. Too often fight scenes, large and small, are impossible to follow. If one director can do it for seventy-seven minutes straight, others with more editing leeway and bigger budgets have zero excuse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an impressive feat of fight choreography and of physical stamina on both sides of the camera, not least from its indefatigable star Tak Sakaguchi.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)

CAPSULE: TOKYO TRIBE (2014)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Kunihiko Kawakami, Young Dais, Nana Seino, Ryôhei Suzuki,

PLOT: When crazy Buppa releases the Waru gang onto the streets of Tokyo, the tribes unite and fight for survival to the sick beats of gangster rap.

Still from Tokyo Tribe (2014)

COMMENTS: If Tokyo Tribe came from any other director, I’d probably say he was trying too hard. However, having seen a few Sion Sono films now, I can see that this is just how the man operates: on a plane with far more mania and extravagance than we mere mortals. Minutes after opening on two urban youths playing with sparklers, dreaming about making a difference, we become fully tuned in to the manga world of Santa Inoue’s serialized epic. Live-action comics, rap battle exposition, and the silliest feud imaginable—Sion Sono delivers all this with his own amped up brand of gusto.

The mean streets of post-post-modern Tokyo are riddled with crime, prostitution, bootleg tapes, ineffectual cops, and close to two dozen gangs of themed thugs. The biggest and nastiest of all the gang lords is Buppa, a man of staggering vulgarity and true psychosis (performed by Riki Takeuchi as if he were a brain-damaged John Belushi). His prime henchman, Mera, holds a grudge against Kai, the leader of the “peaceful” gang, the Musashino Saru tribe. Kai offended Mera in a sauna some years back, and that’s all we’re told. The catalyst for action is the disappearance of the virginal daughter of the High Priest, who needs her for a sacrifice. The plot I’ve just provided is superfluous, and any more would force me to ramble on for some pages. Suffice it to say, you should just check your brain at the door and run with it.

Tokyo Tribe isn’t a weird movie—it is far too accessible for that (and yes, it is a bit weird how accessible this movie feels). But it does stand as one of the most ridiculous films I’ve ever seen (which is something I say neither lightly nor disparagingly). The glorious excess of Sion Sono’s vision of an alternative Tokyo has more than its share of hard R-rated shenanigans, but is somehow approachable throughout (although by the end, we’ll have seen a beat-box tea maid, balloon sex corridors, a case of cigars and fingers, and a black ninja giant who says only, “Bring me! To a! Sauna!”) While Tokyo Tribe doesn’t break the weird ceiling, it does lustily gouge at the plaster.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Words can never do justice to the awe-inspiring, brain-eating weirdness of Sion Sono’s Japanese dystopian hip-hop kung-fu musical Tokyo Tribe…  should all be either horrifying or hilarious — or, less generously, ridiculous and offensive — but somehow, it’s not. There’s a strange power to Sion’s filmmaking that goes beyond the midnight-movie oddness of the plot.”–Bilge Ebiri, New York Magazine (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FOREST OF LOVE (2019)

Ai-naki Mori de Sakebe

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kippei Shîna, Eri Kamataki, , Kyoko Hinami, Sei Matobu

PLOT: A group of young filmmakers make a movie about a con-man they suspect of being a serial killer, but he turns the tables on them when he offers to produce the film, then turns the crew into a sadomasochistic cult of killers.

Still from The Forest of Love (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Sion Sono doesn’t do “normal”; he goes for broke on every project. Forest of Love is overlong, ugly, perverse, masturbatory, and fascinating.

COMMENTS: The intricate plot of Forest of Love includes, among other things, a “Romeo and Juliet” centered lesbian love triangle, a schoolgirl suicide pact, a Svengali-like conman who seduces younger women into sadomasochistic relationships, an outlaw film crew who act like the Manson cult and run around Japan committing murders, bourgeois parents given a punk makeover, days of wine and electrocution, ghosts, and possible identity switches at the end. Sono purportedly based the screenplay on a real-life killer, but I’m thinking that he might have changed a few of the details.

The Forest of Love is a bruising movie. Its two-and-a-half hour length would normally only pose a minor challenge to the viewer, but the extreme level of emotional cruelty Sono wallows in makes it into more of an endurance test. The suicide attempts are particularly brutal, not only because of the squirmy gore, but also due to the callous reactions (the family here finds suicide shameful, and are more concerned with covering up the disgrace than empathizing with their suffering child). But although many stretches of the film are nightmarish episodes of physical and psychological torture that feel like they’re never going to end, there are also moments of incredible beauty (slo-mo schoolgirls in their underwear singing and dancing to Pachelbel’s “Canon”) and black comedy (Murata, taking on the persona of a rock star, hosts a concert with an audience stocked with his previous marks).

Sono mixes elements that are purely exploitative (and often frankly sick) with gorgeous mise en scene, expert style, and just enough intellectualism and self-reflection to overcome charges of pandering. In true Surrealist fashion, he attacks the basic institutions of society, showing Murata molding those in his orbit into an obscene mockery of a nuclear family. But he contrasts this caricature with a portrait of a real dysfunctional Japanese family that is even worse, because it is so real. There’s a lot of subtle mirroring in the plot; the teasing play between the lesbian trio in flashbacks reflect the sadomasochistic dynamics we see between Murata and the two girls, and between Murata and the two young male filmmakers. One figure is always playing off two against each other.

Sono also treads a fine line between realism and absurdity.  Murata manipulates his marks subtly, so that when they go along with his requests it seems almost reasonable at first; he then pushes them further and further until murder seems not only natural, but inevitable. Murata isn’t physically imposing and is greatly outnumbered, so all it would take to frustrate his plans is for any individual to stand up to him at any point. But cowering before his bullying seems reasonable; you see how they fear him, and feel their fear. No one wants to be the first to call him out, because he seldom dishes out punishment himself, instead commanding another to do the dirty work for him. As long as you are the one Murata asks to wield the electrical paddle against the disobedient, you won’t be on the receiving end. Of course, that respite only lasts until you displease the master; but you can see how easy it is for everyone to fall in line. By the time things get truly ridiculous, with the austere father sporting a mohawk and chugging a beer while assaulting his honored relatives, the audience has been brought along so slowly—like the proverbial frog boiled in a pot of gradually warming water—that it almost seems believable. (Of course, the finale will blow any claim to non-hallucinatory realities out of the water).

The fascist element of Murata’s charisma, coupled with the satire aimed at the Japanese family and society, suggests a political allegory. But I couldn’t help theorizing that Sono sees himself as something of a Murata… at least, recognizes that he has the potential within him to be a Murata. In the very first scene, in Murata tells a waiter he’s a screenwriter, and wonders out loud what it feels like to kill someone. The many generic references to other Sono movies and themes—the self-destruction pact like in Suicide Club, filmmakers documenting real crimes like in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, the manipulative serial killer straight out of Cold Fish—only reinforce that sense of self-identification. “Crimes are fun in the movies and in real life,” muses one character. Does the impulse to film such dark fantasies say something about Sono? What does our desire to watch them say about us? Is Sono a con-man implicating us in his cinematic crimes? Sono fools around with those ideas, blurring the lines between representation and reality; he’s in a sadomasochistic relationship with his own demonic persona.

It’s a sign of Sono’s rising prestige that Netflix would sign him for an original exclusive production just like an Alfonso Cuarón or a , and give him carte blanche to make a movie so transgressive that people might think it really was made by a serial killer. It’s a sign of Sono’s continued outlaw status that Netflix would then hide the finished product away, not giving it a token theatrical release like Roma or The Irishman.

Forest of Love was Sono’s first film project after returning to work from a heart attack in February of this year. It was funded by, and screens exclusively on, Netflix (unfortunately, they did not give it even a token theatrical release). The dubbed version plays by default, so look around in your settings to switch it to the original Japanese with subtitles for a better experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sion Sono does not care that his movie is too long. He doesn’t care that it’s weird or gross or inconsistent or anything that a producer’s note might protest. We see so many movies every year that feel like the product of a focus group or marketing team. Not this one.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, , Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: THE FINAL SLICE OF STRANGE

Au Revoir

The Festival’s second half proved to be quite worthwhile, with a few gems tucked away in the final days. It was good, but my eyes started to hurt.

7/29: One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead Poster (2018)This should have appeared in the previous week’s “slice”, but for a couple of days I toyed with doing a fuller write-up of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s “found footage” horror exercise. I’m going to ask that you trust me on this, because I cannot say any more without compromising your viewing experience. But you Really, Really Should see this if you can. For those like me who regard the zombie genre as effectively run into the ground, this movie—despite what it seems the premise is—breathes so much life into the tired, tired tropes of zombie-this, -that, and -the-other. Top-notch cast, top-notch direction, top-notch notch. (Highly recommended.)

7/30: The Scythian

Still from The Scythian (2018)I had unfortunately missed seeing this on the big screen as both screenings conflicted with other films. However, even on a modest 41″ television in a darkened cubicle, Rustam Mosafir’s proto-Russian adventure fantasy proved itself to be one heckuva ride. Filled with sword fights, betrayals, mysterious pagans, and some crazy berserker-juice, The Scythian was everything one could want in a medieval adventure yarn. In particular, the score (which is something I’ve noticed I’ve been noticing a lot more) heightened the historical and mystical tones. Both the diegetic music from traveling performers and the ambient tribal chanting grounded the old world feeling; things cut loose a bit more during a fine bit of fighting when the chants were paired with some sick heavy metal guitar. While criticized in its homeland for a lack of historicity, I was more than happy to overlook incongruities from a millennium ago.

Cinderella the Cat

Still from Cinderella the Cat (2018)With four directors covering 86 minutes, you get about twenty-one minutes per director. I’m not sure how the assignment was divvied up (though conceivably they could had one for the animation, one for the voice acting, one Continue reading 2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: THE FINAL SLICE OF STRANGE