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Japan (1999), 115 minutes
Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura
Reviewer: Vance Aandahl
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rating: 4.5
Let me warn you right away. Some of the events depicted in exquisite detail during the last half hour of Audition are so disturbing for people of the squeamish sort that they have been known to walk out the theater gagging with disgust before the movie ends. Dear reader, I beseech you, if you are a person of the squeamish sort, avoid this film. On the other hand, if you have a cast-iron stomach and are delighted by the delicate esthetics of hideous cruelty (a favorite combo in Japanese culture), then Audition will be just the right cup of tea for you.
Rather than spoiling the movie by giving a scene-by-scene summary of the plot (why do so many bonehead reviewers do this?), I will describe it in general terms. First, the plot draws together various elements from several different cinematic stereotypes including the lonely widower, the boy who becomes a man, the friend whose good advice is ignored, the repulsive old lecher, the crippled dancer, the psycho killer, the black widow, and the innocent child victim who grows up and takes terrible revenge. A clever subplot reveals points of similarity and contrast between the protagonist and his son, each of whom is looking for female companionship. And Director Miike invests his story’s presentation with elegance, style, a sense of mystery, and a heightened dramatic intensity by incorporating flash forwards, flashbacks, and dream visions at key moments in the plot.
Eihi Shiina, Ryo Ishibashi, Tetsu Sawaki, and Jun Kunimura display their acting expertise in the lead roles. Shiina and Ishibashi in particular deserve accolades. They have the talent to reveal nuances of emotion and subtle shifts of mood whenever the camera focuses on their faces for a closeup – complicated shadings of character conveyed without recourse to speech, something that can be done well, I believe, only by a truly accomplished actor.

Audition is a gorgeously photographed movie, with striking camera angles, a sensuous use of color, and numerous shots composed and framed as carefully as a Hokusai woodcut of Mount Fuji. And this masterful cinematography is complemented by equally masterful editing. Miike surprises us again and again with sudden, unexpected cuts from one scene to another. He also likes to alternate slow, peaceful scenes in which a character sits or stands in silence, lost in thought, with rocketship scenes featuring hyperkinetic music and a frantic, rapid-fire sequence of quick cuts.

Two of these quick-cut scenes deserve special praise. Either could stand by itself, one as a humorous short-short story, the other as a poem of nightmarish delirium. The first scene shows us 30 actresses auditioning, one by one, for a part in a movie. The cuts are so rapid that we only get to see each actress do her stuff for a few seconds, but each bit is nicely crafted to be amusing in a different way, with a complicated accumulative effect that’s primarily comic with strong undercurrents of pathos and satire. The second scene comes after the protagonist drinks drugged whiskey, blacks out, and falls to the floor. What we see for the next few minutes is a surreal phantasmagoria of events that the protagonist knows have already happened intermixed with unspeakable possibilities. Once again, Miike’s quick cuts greatly enhance the effect created by this sudden onslaught of imagined horrors. Rather than building slowly, the scene comes at us like a lunatic with a syringe.

Music defines the mood – sweetly melancholy music for sentimental scenes, sinister music for scenes of ominous foreshadowing, romantic music for love scenes, and spritely music for comic scenes. This technical aspect of Audition is too obvious, too blatantly manipulative in its attempt to direct our emotions. Perhaps this criticism merely reveals my personal taste. I prefer movie music that challenges or complicates my emotional reaction to what I’m seeing on the screen.Equally obvious is the fashion in which every element in many of the scenes has been carefully contrived to convey a particular theme or symbol. This contrivance can be seen, for example, in the all-too-frequent use of coincidences. During a fishing scene, the father and the son are discussing women when the father remarks metaphorically that in his search for a new wife, he wants to catch a big fish. Sure enough, a minute later his line goes taut, his pole bends forward, and he reels in a whopper. What a coincidence! How symbolic!

In another scene the father has a stack of thirty resumes fanned out on his desk and is about to look through them one by one when he accidentally spills a few drops of coffee on the corner of a resume that’s near the bottom. He wipes off the coffee, then pulls the resume out of the stack and looks at the photo on it. You guessed it. By chance this happens to be the resume of the actress he falls for. How coincidental!

As in Hollywood movies, everything has been too perfectly calculated and choreographed, a strategy that sacrifices realism for glossy artistry. The problem is not just that the artistry is so noticeably contrived but also that it shows us too clearly where the story is going. After watching the first 48 minutes of Audition, we realize with certainty what the general nature of the outcome will be and can also guess many of the specific details. I’d rather be surprised. But Miike is no fool. He knows that morbid curiosity will keep us interested until we actually see the movie’s horrible conclusion and learn for sure what those specific details are.
Not everything in Audition is so carefully choreographed. From time to time we see a cute little dog named Gang romping spontaneously around in the father’s home. Unfortunately, Gang gets whacked during that half-hour stretch at the end.