Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I'm working to finish up my Fantasia coverage tonight, but I've still got nine movies to work my way through in screener form here at the Labs, including VISITOR Q, a supposedly lunatic offering from Takashi Miike, who I am rapidly becoming a fan of. MrBeaks, our man in NY, has just seen AUDITION, which played to great acclaim at the 2000 Fantasia Festival, and which I need to see as soon as possible. Sounds like he loved it, too. Check this out...
AUDITION (d. Takashi Miike, w. Daisuke Tengan, based on a story by Ryu Murakami)
After a tragic prologue, involving the death of a spouse, and a father’s inability to inform his son of his mother’s passing, director Takashi Miike treats us to a long shot of the newly motherless pair walking aimlessly down a boulevard, staggering toward a sad, uncertain future. The solemn quietude of this moment is subtly broken by the red-hued credits slicing lengthwise with a surgical precision in the top righthand corner of the screen. Suddenly, there’s a foreboding to go along with the empty sense of loss, a tonal balancing act which Miike will be performing throughout most of AUDITION. And then he will level the audience with one of the most shocking third acts in recent memory.
I’ll warn you right now: the best way to experience AUDITION is to know as little as possible before going in, so I’ll suggest you hang around for the first part of the plot summary, stop reading once you have a sense of the premise, and, then, start harassing your local art house programmer until they book this puppy for a one-week run. Tell them whatever pseudo-prestige garbage Miramax is hawking – whether it be EVERYBODY’S FAMOUS or THE CLOSET – is an offer they can and should refuse.
Based on an apparent FATAL ATTRACTION retread, AUDITION, after the elegant pre-credit sequence, brings us forward seven years to find that Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), still widowed, has weathered the heartbreak to successfully raise his son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), a curious, dinosaur-obsessed lad just beginning to discover the opposite sex. When Shigehiko informs his father that he looks older and “plain”, it spurs the lonely, forty-something video producer to consider re-marrying, an idea he floats by his director pal Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), who instantly devises a plan to hold an audition to help the particular Shigeharu find a wife from a pool of attractive, young actresses. When sifting through the pile of resumes and headshots forwarded him from Yoshikawa, Shigeharu, as if by the dictates of fate, spills his tea onto a submission from Asami (Eihi Shiina), an alluring, ballet-trained 24 year-old with a tragic past, and he is instantly smitten with her mature attitude toward the various, unforgiving curveballs life has thrown her. Though Yoshikawa finds that the information provided on her resume is a tad suspect, Shigeharu disregards his warnings and plunges forward into a relationship with the mysterious young Asami.
What follows is best not discussed, though it should be noted that the ending had me recalling both LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE for films of comparable shock value, but that’s only on the surface, as Miike’s work has far more going on underneath than those 70’s grindhouse mainstays. What sets AUDITION apart is its thematic ambiguity as it invokes concepts such as the tradition-bound, subservient treatment of women in Japan (all women in the film are either secretaries, maids, or potential housewives), the possessive nature of marriage and relationships in general, and, that old David Cronenberg favorite, male sexual dread. What I found most remarkable about AUDITION is how all three interpretations over which I was musing dueled for dominance throughout the film, only to seem somewhat secondary, or even wrongheaded, upon reaching the denouement, where the key dialogue replayed in voiceover seemed to negate everything considered beforehand. I can’t remember the last time I stumbled across a horror film this brainy.
Credit, then, Takashi Miike, the prolific, for-hire auteur of countless gangster films (SHINJUKU TRIAD SOCIETY, DEAD OR ALIVE 1 & 2), who has, with AUDITION, demonstrated a knack for toning down the histrionics – if you’ve seen DEAD OR ALIVE, you know what I mean – in favor of leisurely character development and long takes. His ability to segue effortlessly from disquiet to full-bore terror makes me wish he’d abandon the Yakuza flicks altogether in order to concentrate on horror full-time, since he easily outclasses any current practitioner in the ever-embattled genre, but Miike, throughout his brief career, has appeared to have few qualms with hacking it out through some truly uninspired material. In fact, his unabashed commercial sensibilities account for AUDITION’s sole flaw: the audition sequence itself, a routine montage that seems directly plucked from a mid-80’s comedy. Still, even a sequence so seemingly out of place is defensible if only for the disarming effect it has on the audience.
Now, let’s get down to the essential business of praising Eihi Shiina, the lithe, model-turned-actress, who takes the Glenn Close-esque harpy role and infuses it with a dangerously erotic combination of timidity and impish malevolence. Her work opposite Ryo Ishibashi, whose naturally sad features seem calibrated to ensure constant sympathy, shames modern-day femme fatales like Sharon Stone and Kim Basinger, and if Hollywood doesn’t come calling, then just consider it Japan’s gain.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all regarding AUDITION is that it was originally released in 1999, meaning that it’s taken two years for a film of such rare quality to receive its US debut. Though I can’t in good conscience recommend it as the perfect date movie (unless you’re in one of *those* relationships), I will promise that the post-film discussion will be more substantive than usual. And I doubt you’ll ever submit to acupuncture again in your life.
AUDITION is scheduled for a two-week run at the Film Forum in New York City beginning August 8th.