Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi, Toshie Negishi, Ren Osugi, Miyuki Matsuda
Written by: Daisuke Tengan, based on a novel by Ryu Murakami
Directed by: Takashi Miike
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 10/06/1999

Audition (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

In the Bag

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last week Takashi Miike's gangster action flick Dead or Alive blew holes in movie screens and probably in more than a few viewers' psyches as well. Now comes another blast from Miike, this time a psychological horror film called Audition, which opens today at the Castro.

I may have already ruined Audition for some viewers by calling it a "horror" film. That's no doubt what it is, but some audience members will be scratching their heads waiting for the first really scary moment, which does not arrive for one full hour.

As the film begins, the extraordinarily sad Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) sits in the hospital while his wife slowly dies. Seven years later, his teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) starts pestering him that it's time to meet someone new. But Aoyama hasn't any idea how to meet a woman in modern-day Japan. Enter Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a co-worker at Aoyama's video production company who suggests a rather strange idea: they can temporarily resurrect a defunt video project, hold auditions for young actresses, and then Aoyama can select a possible future wife.

Aoyama finds himself attracted to a photo of a beautiful young woman named Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina). At the audition she's the clear winner, dressed in pure white and claiming to be a dancer who sustained a hip injury and now has nothing left to live for. Her shy, subservient manner attracts Aoyama and he quickly falls for her. But without giving anything more away, Yamasaki is not what she seems.

Like Dead or Alive, a full appreciation of Audition probably depends on subtle knowledge of Japanese culture, which I do not have. My guess is that if you take the difficulty of meeting a member of the opposite sex here in America and multiply that by ten, you'll have an idea of how romance operates in Japan. Men there are subconsciously trained to appreciate a subservient manner, a woman who waits on them. But modern women no longer have the urge or the need to do that. I speculate that this paradox is where the horror of Audition comes from.

The film climaxes in a bizarre jumble of multiple realities during which Aoyama can't quite figure out what's happening to him, or even if these events are real. He can't trust his own senses. Yamasaki's silky flesh, the old man playing the piano, a makeshift piano-wire bone saw, the scary laundry bag: they all look, sound, and feel quite real to him. This sequence works quite well, but I wish it had stopped one scene before the final one; it would have provided a far more operatic, O. Henry-like ending rather than the literal one Miike gives us.

Leading up to the dizzying climax, Miike takes things very slow and even invites a comparison to Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), the master Japanese director who filmed everything slowly and quietly, from floor level. This is all the more astonishing when you compare Audition with Dead or Alive, which looked more like a Quentin Tarantino film married with a Hershell Gordon Lewis flick. At first it's hard to believe the same guy made both films. But by the ending, it all comes together.

I have to admit I saw Audition before I saw Dead or Alive, and seeing the latter elevated my appreciation for the former. At first I was impatient for Audition to really get going, but now I realize that the slow first half directly compliments the second, which contains scenes so gruesome that I feel the need to warn the weak-hearted away. For stronger viewers longing for something different, I highly recommend Audition.

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