Audition review

:. Director: Takashi Miike
:. Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina
:. Running Time: 1:55
:. Year: 1999
:. Country: Japan


A daring masterpiece of relentless precision, Audition starts like a light comedy of manners and then slowly swings into an unbearable reality.

Widowed for several years, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) has raised his son with dignity but without real joy in a large house where silence echoes a painful absence. Envisioning himself remarried without really knowing how to go about it, the shy forty-something announces his project to his friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer who proposes putting on a false audition in order to find him a wife. Reading through resumes, Shigeharu discovers a very personal letter from an actress with whose pain he immediately identifies. He becomes infatuated with the young woman and decides to pursue her after the audition. Shigeharu and Asami (Eihi Shiina) become lovers until the day she disappears without a trace. Shigeharu then sets out to find her and slowly plunges into a nightmare that's all too real.

Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami, author of Tokyo Decadence, and on a scenario by Daisuke Tengan, the son of Shohei Imamura (The Eel), Audition affirms the unique vision of director Takashi Miike, beyond the yakuza films like Dead or Alive that made his reputation.

Audition is above all a work of extreme precision that owes its success to the orchestra conductor's talent who meticulously directs this symphony of horror. Starting in a hospital room at the bedside of Shigeharu's wife, the film has an air of bittersweet drama before transforming into a romantic comedy during the audition scene. As the audience has acquired a sincere affection for the main character, viewers believe themselves to be embarked on a light comedy in the vein of Shall We Dance?. The change of tone at the time of the audition as well as the film's title establish this scene as a pivotal to the plot, and so the audience expects unforseen consequences. The film then follows the game of cat and mouse between the two lovers while some strange scenes furtively appear, heralding what's to come. The transition is made smoothly until we meet Asami's adoptive father in a room bathed in dark red light, a sign that Shigeharu, like the audience, has entered purgatory. Everything then crescendos into terror while the descent into hell is inescapable.

The psychological horror and gore of the climax make it almost unbearable. But what makes the end efficient is the way in which the writer and director handle cinematic conventions. Contrary to Italian gore (one thinks of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci) where each film is watched with derision as a puppet show stripped of any credibility, Audition starts like a conventional film and chloroforms the audience into an inoffensive and charming love story. Caught up in the system of a romantic narrative and the realistic context of the story, the audience is then brutally awakened by an unexpected and painful shot of horror.

Miike also benefits from clouding the issues, inserting hallucinated and surrealist sequences where Shigeharu's perceptions are mixed with the exposition of Asami's cruel and sadistic past. The director has fun with the stereotype of the dream as a reversal of situation, teasing the public with the hope of a happier conclusion; a false emergency exit that only amplifies the impact of the reality of the situation. This alternative end translates Shigeharu's remorse and his fears of a relationship based on a lie.

Like many recent Japanese or Korean films, Audition attacks societal problems that are also found in Western society. The plot's catalyst is obviously the rise of loneliness with the recrudescence of the single-parent families in the background. The audition of course refers to the way in which certain producers take advantage of young actresses. The humiliation of women, both young and adult, is in the center of the lampoon, a recurring topic found in Tell Me Something. In fact the two films are rather close, offering strong and determined female characters avenging themselves against a chauvinist society.

The cinematography is aesthetic and at the same time purified, reflecting the tonality of each scene. The colors are saturated in the surrealist sequences but on the contrary a scarlet light reflects the happiness of Shigeharu during the audition. However, the torture scene is filmed in a quasi-surgical manner in order to transmit a quite real fear to the audience and to share in the suffering of the character. All in the cast were well chosen, from Ryo Ishibashi, a rock star turned actor to the striking Eihi Shiina, who passes with impressive ease from ingenue to predator.

While the film may be described as shocking by certain hypocritical right-thinking moviegoers, it's not gratuitous in its provocation, since the excessiveness of the final punishment is only the counterweight of the physical and moral suffering of thousands of women. Furthermore, Audition is a reflection of the rise of audacious cinema that jostles the genres and conventions; and so much the better.

  Fred Thom

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