Takashi Miike, the ever-prolific director, pulled off no small feat with "Audition". He manages to pull a "Hitchcock" and literally jerk his carefully woven rug out from under his audience. I, for one, will never forgive Miike for making me fear hot Japanese girls the way I do after being subjected to "Audition", but there's more. This one is a tough, bitter little nut, so to speak. Like the vast majority of Takashi Miike's films, "Audition" defies categorization into one tidy little genre-label. Is it a romance? In a weird way, yes. Is it a drama? Yes. Is it an unceasingly tense and horrific cautionary tale? Oh my, yes. That Miike, he's a weird little dude. He loves taking audience expectations and reservations and literally chewing them up and spitting them back at you. But hey, that's more than can be said about all but a scant few "genre" directors from the Western Hemisphere, so count me among the grateful.
"Audition" starts innocently (though tragically) enough...a man named Aoyama finds himself having to raise his young son alone after his wife dies from a long illness. Cut to several years later, when the now middle-aged man is still unmarried, and his now teenaged son encourages him to start dating...to move on with his life. The man reluctantly agrees, and enlists the help of his buddy, a TV Producer named Yoshikawa. Together, they come up with the idea of literally holding an audition for a nonexistent film project...in order to attract veritable hordes of beautiful and "ideally Japanese" (e.g. subserviant, quiet, pretty, smart, and obedient) women so that our would-be hero can have his pick of the litter, as it were. Sounds like the basis of a bitter-sweet romantic comedy, doesn't it? With any other director, that's what it would have turned into. But remember, this is a movie from the guy who did "Fudoh" and "Ichi the Killer"...there's rough waters ahead, is all I'm sayin'. Aoyama pores over the applicant's personal files, and finds himself oddly attracted to a darkly gorgeous former ballerina named Asami (played brilliantly by popular Japanese model Eihi Shiina in her film debut). Something in her personality and "history" strikes a pleasant chord with Aoyama, and despite the cautioning from his friend, he "chooses" Asami. Aoyama and Asami go out on a few awkward "dates", where they learn more and more about one another. To Aoyama, Asami is everything he could have wished for. She is beautiful, mousy, intelligent, graceful, and seemingly aware of her place in the world. Sure, she strikes him as somewhat needy and dependent...but those traits only serve to influence Aoyama that Asami needs him as much (if not more) than he needs her. So begins a whirlwind courtship, during which time Aoyama's son is pleased that his father seems happier and "in love", but Yoshikawa still thinks there's something "too good to be true" about Asami. He does a bit of leg work regarding her past, and finds that she has lied about nearly every detail of her employment history. Furthermore, one of her former employers, a recording executive, suddenly went missing some time before. These things might send up major warning flags for most people, but Aoyama takes it all with a grain of salt. He's simply too smitten with Asami to believe even for a second that she might be anything less than perfect. That proves, of course, to be his undoing. Out of curiosity, and because he promised his friend he would "cool it" for a while, Aoyama does a little digging of his own after he and Asami share a highly uncomfortable weekend tryst. He finds out that Asami may or may not be connected to a string of dissapearances, and that she likely suffered a horrific pattern of abuse at the hands of her foster parents. When he finally starts to get wise to Asami's past, it's too little, too late, and he finds that at no matter what cost, Asami intends to have him love only her...forever. And then things get ugly.
"Audition", like the best psychological thrillers, is a portrait painted in subtleties...a shade here, a highlight there...that come together to show something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. When the scares come, and they do, they don't jump out and say "boo". They creep up and brush the little hairs on the back of your neck so you know they're there, then just when you think it's safe again, they tear out your fuckin' jugular! I'll try not to ruin this all for you, but let's just say that the last half-hour of this film are a supremely scary payoff for the slow, burning build-up of the first hour or so. I'm serious. You'll see. This is audacious, clever, and shocking horror filmmaking at its finest, and Miike proves once again that he's one of the best directors working today (in Japan and otherwise). He frames his sequences tautly, and there is no fat or gristle to be had here. There is nary a wasted shot, again indicative of Miike's efficiency as a director. After all, this guy pumps out like 10 films a year...and not one of them has been very bad (not all of them are as grand as Audition, or Ichi the Killer, however).
Likewise, the performances in Audition are uniformly excellent and low-key. Let's face it...when you're dealing with subject matter like this, it would be far too easy for the film to dip into self-parody. The actors are absolutely essential in keeping this in check. Ryo Ishibashi as Aoyama and Eihi Shiina as Asami fit the bill nicely, and along with the rest of the cast deliver nuanced, highly effective performances. Shiina, in particular, always (even from the beginning) walks the line between gorgeous, sultry, and totally whacked. I hope she gets more work.
"Audition" is yet another example of how some of the best, scariest, and most effective genre films are coming out of Asia (and in particular, Japan). These people are taking themes familiar to Western audiences, mixing in a bit of traditional Asian sensibility and symbolism, and what you have is a cocktail of fright and general depravity that is really making for some exciting films. If only Hollywood would stop churning out wretched, recycled, formulaic crap (including trying to remake Japanese films) and take notice! The world would be a better (and redder) place! I digress.
American Cinematheque has given us a really swell DVD here. Great digital video transfer with a minimum of grain. Really good sound quality (especially during the finales...if the sound during the finale don't make you squirm in your chair, you have no soul). All-around a great release for a great, great movie.
I really can't recommend this film highly enough. It's scary, haunting, oddly touching, and totally gripping. In true Miike form, the audience is taken on a thrill ride they won't soon forget. Watch it several times before you die.