(In Japanese with English subtitles)
114 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, September 14, 2001
Directed by Takashi Miike
Starring Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Miyuki Matsuda, Ren Osugi
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 5%|
LETTERBOX: COULDN'T HURT
This won't lose ANY punch. Handle with care. :)
VIDEO RELEASE: 06.04.2002
Skillful, sexual, stylish 'Audition' over-graphic yet underwhelming art house horror from Japan
The main character in "Audition" is a shy, middle-aged Japanese widower who taps a movie-making buddy to help him find a new wife now that his son is a teenager with a life of his own and little interest in hanging around with dad.
His friend arranges for Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) to pretend to be a producer and sit in on phony screen tests of wannabe actresses that might strike our hero's fancy. He hopes to hit it off with one of them, then string her along with little white lies about delayed casting decisions, hoping she'll become more interested in him than the movie. (This plot would never work if the film were set in Hollywood!)
When pretty, very demure Asami (fashion model Eihi Shiina in her film debut) takes the bait then later confesses she doesn't really want to be an actress, Aoyama falls in love and seems to think he's landed in a quaint little romantic comedy.
Aoyama couldn't be more wrong. In fact, he's in a sexualized and shockingly gruesome horror movie, and before it's over his coy little sweetheart is going to have him immobilized on a tarp on his living room floor while she's unpacking surgical equipment that would make Freddy Krueger nervous.
Suffice it to say this is not a movie for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But "Audition" has problems besides those that lie in the audience's constitution for soldiering through the explicit violence.
Director Takashi Miike ("Dead or Alive") begins brilliantly, building a recurring sense of skin-crawling foreboding atop the film's ostensible innocuousness -- especially as Aoyama discovers the girl's proximity to past disappearances and grisly murders yet somehow fails to put two and two together. But after a couple acts of linear storytelling in which these characters become lovers, the narrative suddenly careens into a non-linear, non-literal nightmare so discombobulated I actually thought for a good 10 minutes that the projectionist had loaded the wrong reel.
With a lot of scrutiny on the part of the viewer, these scenes do eventually coalesce into a metaphorical montage. There's some psychological backstory on Asami, including scenes of a sexually abusive ballet teacher whose feet she chopped off. There's Aoyama dreaming of Asami when she's replaced in his dream by his dead wife, then his secretary, then a schoolgirl. But it's incredibly hard to follow because the film has changed gears without warning or transition of any kind.
"Audition" is full of deft, stylish and deliberate filmmaking. Miike employs long, still, single takes that invite the audience to explore the frame, like an early static shot of Asami kneeling, motionless, in her near-empty apartment, staring at her telephone waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for Aoyama to call. The only other thing in the room is a conspicuously huge and lumpy burlap sack tied tightly at the top. Nothing happens in this scene for long enough that you begin staring at that sack, wondering what's in there. Then it suddenly and loudly jumps, thumps, moans and rolls desperately and fitfully around on the floor -- and falls silent again. And the girl hasn't moved a muscle. Goosebumps!
The performances of Ryo and especially Eihi are the film's other great asset. The young model-turned-actress manages to play, with absolute conviction, many overlapping but wildly divergent characteristics. The way she sweetly, innocently sings "deeper, deeper, deeper" while performing the film's most disturbing torture sequence is a remarkable demonstration of emotional dexterity.
But in addition to being confusing in a way I can only assume was deliberate but misguided, for all its shock value and creativity, "Audition" inspires an underwhelming reaction. In spite of being impressed with the filmmaking and startled by some of the action, when the credits rolled I thought, so what?
More frustrating still, the film seems to reach a terrifically mind-tweaking finale that would have audiences discussing its psychological implications -- then it just keeps going with the torture scenes.
While unnecessarily graphic, it's not these scenes themselves to which I'm objecting. Horror movies have done worse, although not as realistically. The problem I have is that for a film that postures itself as being artistic, it seems mostly obsessed with exploitation.