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A lonely Japanese widower whose son is planning to move out of the house soon expresses his sadness to a friend and fellow film producer, who becomes inspired to hold an audition for a non-existent film so that the widower can select a new potential bride from the resulting audition pool. The widower ultimately becomes enamored with and fascinated by one particular young woman...but first impressions can often be horribly wrong.... Written by
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Surprisingly "deliberate" but ultimately visceral film
Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami, director Takashi Miike's Audition is surprisingly "deliberate" and straightforward for much of its length. It's not a bad film at all, but most of it is in the realm of realist drama, even becoming something of a romance at one point. There are a few brutal images and scenarios, but they arrive primarily towards the end of the film, and they tend to be more conceptually disturbing than graphically violent.
Audition is the story of Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who is living alone with his son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), after his wife, Ryoko (Miyuki Matsuda), passes away. First egged on by Shigehiko, Shigeharu decides to remarry. He enlists the help of a movie producer friend, Yasuhisha Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), who devises a scheme well known to pornographers--he sets up bogus auditions for a film.
Yasuhisha acquires a large number of resumes and headshots for this purpose, out of which he asks Shigehiko to choose 30 women to audition. Before the audition day even arrives, Shigehiko has his eyes set on one particular woman, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Asami strikes Yasuhisha as peculiar, but Shigehiko has fallen for her and a romance begins. However, Yasuhisha turns out to be right--there is something strange about her, as the audience can clearly see due to the fine performance from Shiina. Audition explores Asami's story and her relationship to Shigehiko.
It's a good hour, at least, before anything very out of the ordinary happens in the film, and even when that time does arrive, the strange occurrences are extremely subtle at first. The pacing and tone of this first half of the film is more similar to Hideo Nakata's style as displayed in films like Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara, 2002). This is only the third Miike film I've seen so far (I had difficulty tracking them down for purchase or rental before I joined Netflix), and the directorial style of Audition was surprising to me. That's because so far, every Miike film I've seen has a completely different style (the other two I've watched to date are Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1) and Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kôfuku), both from 2001).
But as a realist drama that ventures into romance and slight mystery/thriller territory during its first half, Audition is a fine piece of art--you just have to know what to expect. All of Miike's films that I've seen so far--as different as they are stylistically--share excellent direction. Miike is extremely adept at handling his cast, he knows how to get incredible cinematography, and he has interestingly varied ways of blocking scenes. Audition has a combination of a voyeur and a psychologically dissociative theme in its cinematography, appropriate to the plot. We view quite a few scenes from a distance--the camera is sometimes even placed in a room adjacent to the main action; there is a great hand-held tracking shot following Shigeharu and Yasuhisha through their office from behind partitions ala James Whale's Frankenstein (1931); an important "repeated scene" in a restaurant that gives us another psychological angle, with significantly altered dialogue, is shot at a distance; in the dénouement, another repeated dialogue scene with shifted meaning is shot from another room, and so on.
Of course, the main attraction for most folks, at least in my part of the world, is the more mysterious and visceral material that enters in the second half, as the majority of Miike fans tend to be horror fans. For awhile, Miike, Murakami and scriptwriter Daisuke Tengan (whom Miike amusingly says must have "been on drugs" when he wrote Audition, because the script was so weird--he implies that he tried to "normalize" it a bit) play with audience expectations as Audition threatens to become a more standard relationship thriller, then a ghost story, then a rubber reality film (all of these things are implied in turn during one of the best extended sequences of the film), and finally, we realize that it's more about a psychotic villain. This final revelation leads to the infamous climactic scenes of the film, which will test some audience members' constitutions as we venture into more grisly territory accompanied by marvelous hallucinatory sequences. The performances in this section are worthy of a 10, even if, as Miike says in his commentary, Shiina, at least, seemed to almost stop performing and simply became the character--a frightening thought, particularly for Ishibashi.
There are a number of subtexts that one can read into Audition, although Miike characteristically (for Asian genre cinema) stresses an intention of ambiguity. Many read the film as kind of a twisted feminist empowerment fantasy. After all, even if Shigeharu did not have the womanizing history and ill intentions for the audition that some characters believe him to have had, those beliefs are in line with at least a cynical misogynistic account of the typical motivations. Shigehiko's "girlfriend", who makes a brief appearance, is presented as a counterexample to be surmounted on this reading, as she is a traditional token of a more yielding female. Shigeharu's coworker who says she is going to get married is presented as a more implicitly "abused" counterexample.
But the film works on many other levels, too, no less a very literal one. Although I only thought Audition was a "B" (the letter grade equivalent to my 8) this time around, I can easily see my score improving on future viewings when I have more appropriate expectations. If you are a fan of Hideo Nakata's films, or even Byeong-ki Ahn's Phone (2002), which is very similar in tone, you shouldn't miss Audition.
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