Saturday, October 27, 2012

Audition

When spending an entire month reviewing horror movies, you've got to revisit some of the classics, right?  I didn't watch Audition (or, Ôdishon in its native Japanese) when it first came out.  Once I had been exposed to the true awesomeness of Asian horror, though, I tracked it down --- and it left an impression on me.  There are not a whole lot of movies that make me physically cringe when recalling them, but Audition is certainly one.  Over the years, it has built up a solid reputation, making some best-of-the-decade horror lists and it was prominently listed among Bravo's scariest films countdown (that link is totally worth checking out, by the way), but I've never gone back to it.  Until now.  Wish me luck.

By the way, am I the only one who fins it hilarious that the Japanese word for "Audition" is "Ôdishon"?  It's spelled and pronounced the same way Jerry Lewis would have said it while doing a really offensive Japanese impression, back in the 1960s.  Is it racist to laugh at something because you realize it's racist?  I hope not.

Audition begins with Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) playing the part of a hard-working widower.  He spends time with his teenage son, Shigehiko(Tetsu Sawaki), and they clearly care about each other, but...well, they're dudes, and dudes don't talk touchy-feely stuff.  Especially in Japan's emotionally conservative culture.  Still, they're as affectionate as they can be, although it often takes the form of awkwardness.
"Thanks Dad, I had hoped you would say something creepy tonight"
One day, Shigehiko straight up tells his father to find a girlfriend.  Apparently, all it took for Shigeharu to rejoin the dating pool was for his son to sign his permission slip.  But Shigeharu is not a young man anymore.  How is he supposed to find the right woman?  Bar hopping?  No way.  Shigeharu's work buddy has a bright idea, though.  Since they are in the entertainment business, they will find a pitch for a TV show and set up a casting audition for the lead part.  That way, they can have the ladies come to them, instead of the other way around.
"We're looking for women who like having their aspirations toyed with"
During the audition process, Shigeharu finds himself smitten with the very demure Asami (Eihi Shiina).  He asks her out, and they start dating.  The more he gets to know about her, the more he likes her.  And while Asami does seem very sweet, she also seems a little...off.  It's nothing concrete, but Shigeharu's friend notices it and tries to learn more about her.  No dice.  None of her references can be contacted.  None of them.  He can't even find any official record of her.  Well, that's probably not that big of a deal.  After all, it's not like she is obsessively focused on Shigeharu and spends her entire day doing literally nothing until he calls.
Even without the mystery sack, this shot creeps me out
Shigeharu continues his relationship with Asami until she abruptly vanishes.  Desperate to find his new love, Shigeharu starts doing his own investigation into her past.  And let's just say that what he finds, disturbing as it is, is nothing compared to what she has in store for him.
The store she shops at is Crazy Mart, and she cleaned them out

Audition is fairly unique among modern horror movies because it takes its time.  It's not just that the movie has a slow pace, either (although it does).  The entire movie builds up to the last fifteen minutes.  Up until that point, Audition feels more like a romance than a horror film.  If it wasn't for the single scene of Asami waiting for the phone to ring (and the reaction of the monster in her burlap bag), the last act would be a complete shock.  But with that single, short, bizarre scene, Audition whets your appetite and the suspense starts to build.  Most of the time, when a movie builds the suspense for over an hour, the payoff is a little underwhelming.  Not when the movie is a horror film from director Takashi Miike, though.  Miike is known for his absolutely ludicrous movies, and he doesn't skimp out with Audition.
To give you an idea of the horror, tongue injections are "the good old days" in Audition
This is the best storytelling effort from Miike that I have seen (so far).  As absolutely bizarre as Miike can get with his films, he did a pretty good job of constructing a convincing love story in the first hour of Audition.  All the characters are pretty likable and, in a typical romance movie, could have eventually been described as "precious."  But then Miike decides to bring the pain.  It's not what is done that is so horrifying --- although it absolutely is scary --- it is that Miike was able to get such a gleeful performance from Eihi Shiina while she was doing it.
This is her reaction to dismemberment
I've never thought of Takashi Miike as a director who gets good performances from his actors, but Shiina in those last fifteen minutes...?  Absolutely terrifying.

Audition hits a little close to home for me, because one of my greatest fears is that I will somehow upset a crazy woman.  I know it's an irrational fear, because I'm a nice guy and I've married a woman who probably wouldn't torture me to death, but movies about batshit-crazy, take-no-prisoners, nothing-left-to-lose ladies freak me the hell out.  Just thinking about the end of this movie makes me want to buy something nice for my wife, just to extend my miserable existence a few more days.
I probably won't buy her needles, though.  Just in case.

If you do not want to see a movie with freakishly believable torture in it, you might want to skip Audition.  The scenes are deceptively gory; you might flinch or close your eyes in those last few scenes, but there is actually very little gore in this film.  There is a high WTF quotient, though.
Case in point
Even with the disorienting nature of the randomly weird scenes, the torture can be hard to stomach.  It has nothing to do with the gore or the sound effects (although those are pretty great).  It has everything to do with Eihi Shiina's performance.  On paper, it might seem hilarious that the Japanese word for "deeper" sounds an awful lot like "kitty," but when Shiina is saying that with a smile, look out.  Rarely have I seen such an abrupt, yet believable, turnaround in a character, but she was terrific.  She was shy and humble at first, but there was just enough creepy desperation for her to feel inexplicably wrong; when she finally reveals her true colors, it is a surprise, but only in the degree of crazy she turns out to be.
First clue: she ordered a glass of Homicidal Psycho Bitch on draft

As much as I legitimately love/hate the payoff to all the buildup in this film, there are some issues with Audition.   The biggest is probably the abrupt way it ends; it's believable, but I was hoping for something to top the craziness that is the last fifteen minutes of the movie.  The other is the symbolic dream sequence that occurs just before the torture.  While I like its symbolism, it is fairly inconsistent by Western standards.  If it had stuck to revelations and insights into the characters, it would be fine.  However, it lets Shigeharu discover some clues that he could never have uncovered outside of the dream world, and I thought that cheapened the payoff.  Thankfully, the revelations were really, truly weird, disgusting, and totally worth fitting into the film however they could, but there had to be a better way to do it.  Japan seems to have a greater lenience for unexplained psychic phenomenon in their horror films, but that just felt out of place.
Kind of like asking "Do you like torture?" in an interview --- out of place, but probably worthwhile
One thing about Audition that surprised me during this, my second viewing: Shigeharu's friend never comes up with a convincing argument against Asami.  All he has are vague misgivings.  Really?  It takes Shigeharu just a day to track down some disturbing information on her, but his friend, who has allegedly spent weeks digging, finds nothing?  Hell, all he had to do was point out she was a dancer.  It is a known fact that all dancers fall on the sliding scale of scary-craziness; the scale goes from 1 to 10, with Staying Alive a 1, Black Swan a 5, and Audition a 7.  You don't want to know what a 10 looks like (hint: killer hammertoe).

As good as I think Audition is --- there are few movies that can build up to a single scene so effectively --- I can't say that it is a particularly fun movie to watch.  Of course, that's not the intent, I know.  But...I really mean it.  This movie makes me uncomfortable.  Part of it is the crazy lady core, and part of it is the torture, but I think it also has to do with the first hour.  I love how effective Miike is at building the tension, but he doesn't really give the audience a good picture of these characters in the first hour.  Shigeharu and his son are too good to be true, and we learn that in the dream sequence (for Shigeharu, anyway).  I think keeping Asami a mystery is a good choice, but making Shigeharu a genuinely compelling character instead of a fairly generic nice guy would have pushed Audition from "effective" to "fantastic."

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