AUDITION

Directed by Takashi Miike

Written by Daisuke Tengan, based on a story by Ryu Murakami

With Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki and Jun Kunimura

***1/2



(Warning: spoilers ahead)

From Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE to Dario Argento's INFERNO to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's CURE, the best horror films often seem to  pour out of the unconscious. For all the craftsmanship that went into these films, they tap into something primal, whether it be a fear of the unknown, one's own body or the nastier undercurrents of the collective id. Many recent Asian films specialize in tonal shifts, but AUDITION uses them to get at something really threatening, rather than simply showing off Miike's impressive ability to achieve a wide variety of styles and moods: petty despair fueling into a spree of Sadean torture.  It's a perpetual morphing machine: a portrait of middle-aged loneliness evolving into a love story, becoming a mystery and spiraling into Grand Guignol, with one segment that might be the horror equivalent of the trip scene in 2001. Takashi takes all his extremes to the limit. Note that I said all: the first third of AUDITION is an Ozu-like examination of a widower trying to rejuvenate himself,  offering few clues that the film might end with a bloodbath. Its unsettling undertones become apparent only in retrospect, although there's something vaguely creepy and confrontational about Miike's close-ups, in which characters often stare directly into the camera.

AUDITION begins with Aoyama (Ishibashi) at his wife's deathbed. She dies, and then an  intertitle tells us that 7 years have passed. They've been lonely ones: Aoyama's young son is now a teenager with a girlfriend on his own. He points out to his father that he's starting to look old. (Is it any coincidence that he's fascinated by dinosaurs?) A full-fledged mid-life crisis ensues, with Aoyama deciding to cruise for a new wife by setting up auditions for a movie role. The movie will never be made, but he thinks it's a good excuse to meet  women. Interviewing thirty young women, he settles on Asami (Shiina), a former ballet student who had to give up her craft due to a hip injury. While he struck women off his list for answering yes to questions like "Are you interested in drugs?," or even "Have you seen any Tarkovsky films?", he's impressed by Asami's demure, virginal demeanor. The two begin dating, but Aoyama ignores signs that Asami may not be as innocent as she seems, even after discovering that her resumé consists of  half-truths.

The marketing for AUDITION, including a poster with Asami holding up a syringe and  a press still of her holding piano wire, is one big spoiler: it would be best for the audience to go into it unprepared. Still, even knowing the general direction of its shifts  didn't prepare me for its leaps into  dementia.  After Aoyama and Asami go on a weekend date to a hotel, she disappears in the early A.M. Around the same time,  whatever consciousness AUDITION represents becomes an unreliable narrator, as it takes some major stylistic leaps (such as using incredibly bright gels). Ultimately, the film simply goes haywire, sidelined by a montage that recycles previous scenes (sometimes with different dialogue) and cuts between conversation at two different restaurants as if there was no gap between them. If these scenes are dreams or hallucinations, the dreamer seems to have access to both Aoyama and Asami's minds. The finale's extremely gruesome imagery is made a little easier to take by hints that it might be a fantasy, but the psychological torture is made even worse by the flashbacks to her memories of childhood abuse. When the hall-of-mirrors effect sets in, the line between reality and dreams seems irrelevant: both are nightmares.

Just as provocatively, AUDITION links the physical abuse Asami suffered as a child at her ballet teacher's hands with the "innocent" lies Aoyama told her in order to get a date. He's no villain, and the film never mocks his quest for love. If he crosses the line into exploitation, his actions stem mostly from loneliness, and if he puts himself in danger in pursuit of her, he may be acting of unacknowledged guilt. However, Asami is no conventional villain either. As awful as her actions are, she remains partially sympathetic as well: even at her most violent, her character retains a perverse innocence. (Devotees of Asian dominatrixes may find the final half hour far more watchable than the rest of us.)  Both characters are  victims who wind up hurting each other, but Miike makes it plain that everyday life is torture for her. No matter how nice Aoyama is, he's the latest in a link of men who exploit her. After all, he still has no interest in aiding her as an artist. Like the other men who've held out this promise in order to seduce her, he winds up paying.

The violence of AUDITION is so harsh that it might be foolish to suggest that it's a metaphor. But the film is both visceral and cerebral, incorporating its flood of plasma and mutilations into a steam of memory that recalls Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.  In an interview conducted by Gavin Rees for THE GUARDIAN last March, he asked Miike why a country as safe  as Japan produces so many violent films and comic books. Miike responded "I suppose film takes up the slack of what is not expressed in society. Obviously it is good that Japan is a safe place, but I wonder if there is something unnatural about the placidity of Japanese society." The first half of AUDITION represents this placidity, but the second half shows the consequences of the polite misogyny that helps keep it afloat. Although it was made two years after CURE, the gods of timing sent AUDITION into New York theaters 5 days later, and both films suggest the surface calm of Japanese life is a thin facade. The anger behind AUDITION is certainly feminist, but this label may be too limiting for such a corrosive film.