The best way to see Takashi Miike’s Audition might be to have it handed to you on an unmarked videotape by a friend who knows exactly what freaks you out. So you tabula-rasa types should check out of this review right now. For those of you still here, I’ll aver that Audition is the real deal–a masterful exercise in the manipulation of moods that gradually takes on the tonal quality and ambiguities of a nightmare.

The buzz on this one began last year, about the time it was screened for an unsuspecting festival audience at Rotterdam, where it reportedly inspired a slew of walkouts. Now, whether it is or isn’t any kind of accomplishment to send a wave of festivalgoers to the exits, what’s remarkable about Audition is the patient and deliberate set-up, rather than the unsettling payoff. In other words, Miike actually manages to tell a story here. And what’s really creepy? If you didn’t know this was a horror film, you wouldn’t see it coming.

Initially far closer in tone to, say, Yi Yi than to Miike’s previous U.S. release, Dead or Alive, Audition begins with an ending–the death of a hospital-bound wife and mother. Flash-forward seven years. The young boy has grown to adolescence, and encourages his widowed father Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) to remarry. A colleague at the production company where Aoyama works suggests that he might meet and evaluate potential partners by holding an audition to cast actresses for a production that will never happen. One of those women is the demure Asami (Eihi Shiina), a vision dressed entirely in white. Asami says she’s an aspiring singer; Aoyama subsequently screws up the courage to ask Asami to dinner, and she accepts.

From there, things start getting weird. Strange narrative tics set the edgy mood; Miike’s style warps subtly but perceptibly, suggesting that all is not right with the new relationship. What’s most effective here is Miike’s strong directorial style. The only Miike film I had seen previously was Dead or Alive, but Audition affirms that Miike’s visual sensibility–which seemed much finer than that film’s over-the-top shenanigans would lead you to expect–is no fluke. Eventually, the game is finally revealed; deliberate narrative gaps are filled in and a bizarre assemblage of images floods across the screen to tell the story behind the story. Even then, Miike keeps us off balance by manipulating things to suggest dementia and hallucination.

(The spoilers get thicker from here, so if you haven’t seen the film you may definitely want to check out now.)

Audition could be read as misogynist (as could Dead or Alive, with its vicious tableaux including a woman drowned in a pool filled with excrement) in its depiction of the femme fatale who first appears as a vestal virgin (an ex-ballerina, for God’s sake). It’s difficult, however, to ignore the subtext, which clearly implicates Aoyama in his scheme to ensnare a lover under false pretenses. That doesn’t change the fact that Aoyama remains a highly sympathetic character throughout the film. Essentially, his transgression is dishonesty, and his dishonesty is a function only of his loneliness. Ishibashi’s soft-eyed portrayal of this vulnerable fellow is disarming, and inasmuch as we identify with the old softy’s feelings, we’re made to feel more and more of his pain.

What’s more, Aoyama is not entirely guiltless, which makes it hurt more. At one point during the audition itself–which takes place in a splendidly forbidding room with mechanized window blinds that drop as though imprisoning anybody caught within those walls–he mutters that he feels like he’s committing a crime. Indeed, his initial inspection of Asami feels predatory, despite his obvious empathy for her. As Aoyama finally gets his comeuppance, the film shifts into full-on Grand Guignol mode. The images are indelible, and the performance of fashion model Shiina turns out to be a great one–gleefully over-the-top and somehow downright spooky at the same time.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Miike seems to be that cherished rarity among genre directors: He’s interested in nosing around in these murky psychological depths and he’s a top-notch storyteller. Think David Cronenberg; I don’t know if Miike will ever match Cronenberg’s level of intellectual sophistication or thematic consistency, but this film shares his austere beauty aesthetic and fascination with body horror.

There’s a narrative playfulness at work, too. Some critics contended that Miike meant Dead or Alive merely as an exercise in depravity and provocation. I read it as more than that–a tongue-in-cheek extension of amped-up genre rules to their apocalyptic conclusion. Audition is positively Hitchcockian (if that term can possible mean anything these days) in its capacity to spring surprise after surprise on the audience, eventually either battering them into submission or sending them fleeing the cinema. For those who stick around, there’s real joy in the experience–in an age of $100 million Hollywood desensitization, a film that inspires such a combination of dread and awe at each grisly twist feels even more thrilling and alive. A- A (Upgraded 9/29/07)

Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Ryu Murakami
based on his novel
Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto
Music by Kôji Endo
Starring Ryo Ishibashi and Eihi Shiina
USA, 2001
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Screened on DVD (Universe Laser & Video Co.)

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