Friday, October 24, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 23 - Audition

#6 (Tie) - 8 Votes

Takashi Miike has directed more than ninety films over the course of his two-decade career, so a person would probably have to see at least a couple dozen before accurately characterizing his body of work. I've seen four, all of which featured a lot of extreme content, but Miike has also made mainstream thrillers, historical dramas and even a few family films. So when I say that Audition is a model of restraint compared to the other Miike films I've seen, take it with a grain of salt. While it doesn't feature a ton of explicit gore or projectile bodily fluids or kiddie pools filled with poop, it's still disturbing (and good) enough for me to file away under "Films I Respect That I Might Never Watch Again."

Audition's beginning is deceptive - if you haven't seen it and want to go in fresh, I recommend stopping here. Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is encouraged by his teenage son (Tetsuo Sawaki) to start dating again; it's a setup that wouldn't be out of place in any number of Japanese domestic drama, and Miike stages and shoots it accordingly. Shigeharu's friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer, convinces Shigeharu to allow him to set up a mock casting audition to find a new wife. He soon falls for a young actress and dancer named Asami (Eihi Shiina); after pursuing her for a few days, the two begin dating. The first half of the film is expertly paced, as we get small hints that something is very wrong with Asami. It's deliberate enough to drive some viewers expecting a bloodbath to frustration; the first major scare doesn't occur until about halfway through the movie, but when it does, it's a doozy, and it works precisely because Miike was willing to risk drawing out the tension to the point of tedium.

Audition's brutal climax has inspired feminist readings of the film, as a basically decent guy who is talked into doing a pretty creepy thing is punished for casually exploiting his position of privilege, to which I'd respond, "Yes, but." For one thing, as wrong as staging a false audition as a pretense to meet women is, the punishment is so grossly disproportionate to the crime that it would play like black comedy if it weren't so difficult to stomach. Also, and most importantly, while it's suggested early on that Asami might be disturbed as the result of a history of abuse, by the end it's not clear if anything we think we know about her is true. Asami's is a very specific kind of madness where attempting to trace back an original cause only leads to more questions; everything she does is a sort of performance, and there probably isn't a "real" her at the core of it. This could be interpreted as problematic, because these are exactly the kind of characteristics abusers will ascribed to their partners to shift the blame; on the other hand, people like Asami do exist, and they're generally very canny at manipulating power dynamics in a relationship.

So while Audition is partly a cautionary tale about abuse of privilege, it's also a canny role-reversal, with a male character experiencing the nightmare scenario for any woman who goes on a date with a stranger. And that ending is brilliantly executed; though I haven't seen the movie since that first time, I can remember certain images and, especially, Asami's creepy sing song-y voice as she does her work. While Miike actually avoids lingering on the graphic details, it's a masterpiece of suggestion that goes on for an unbearably long time; at one point, I was relieved to think the worst was over, and when it was revealed as a fake-out, I was both horrified and amused by Miike's willingness to push the scene as far as he could. And he ends the movie at precisely the right moment; I'm not sure if Asami's final line is an expression of contempt for Shigeharu, or if it's a genuine show of affection, and I'm not sure which possibility is more frightening.

U.S. Release Date: August 8, 2001 (Also opening that weekend: American Pie 2, The Others, Osmosis Jones, The Deep End, Session 9, An American Rhapsody, The Turandot Project)

What critics said at the time:

"Those intending to see Audition will not be put off by my revealing that gross sadism, mutilation and amputation, involving acupuncture needles and cheese-cutter wire that slices through skin and bone, form the protracted and, in my judgment, pornographic climax: a sequence of violent psychopathology which shows how the Far East cinema's fixation on physical pain is now being presented in art-house terms, imported into the West by distributors ever eager to bring sensational new products to market, and passed by Mr Whittam Smith with a Certificate 18. Such material will soon, I forecast, filter down into mainstream cinema protected by the overriding defence of Article 10 of the Convention on Human Rights - the ‘free expression’ one." - Alexander Walker, Evening Standard 
"Singularly untrustworthy, the grisly climactic spree contains the most appallingly memorable image of the year (piano wire is involved). The final half-hour of emphatically corporeal horror is all the more unsettling for its queasy open-endedness—its lysergic inability to distinguish between reality and moribund fantasy. The effect is of a zero-gravity torture chamber, with no exit in sight." - Dennis Lim, Village Voice
(I'd skip this trailer if you haven't seen the movie, as it spoils the best scene.)

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