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Audition

(Miike Takashi, Japan, 1999)


 


The hungry culture of international Film Festivals and the market for world cinema has created a new breed of filmmaker: eccentric, prolific talents, eager to be perceived and sold as auteurs, who make multiple variations on the same film as rapidly and energetically as possible.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder heralded this frenetic, desperate trend in the ’70s. Many have followed in his wake, including Aki Kaurismäki and Wong Kar-wai. Success reveals itself to be a Faustian pact for these creators. They ride the wave of fashion with flair until they are unceremoniously dumped, and then face the enormous challenge of reinventing themselves and their too-familiar styles (as Wong did with In the Mood for Love [2000]).

Miike Takashi is not yet well known in Australia, but he is the latest sensation on the world cinema circuit. This year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, for example, showcased no less than four new Takashi movies. Mostly, his work (such as the stomach-churning Ichii the Killer [2001]) takes what our censors call "gratuitous violence" to grotesque heights of excess. But he is also capable of surreal whimsy, as in his hilarious musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

Audition started the Takashi cult three years ago. Anyone who has read the impassioned salvos in the international press pro and con Takashi may find this film an underwhelming introduction to such controversy – for its first hour, at any rate.

Audition is the ultimate exercise in slow-burn suspense. Takashi risks blandness as he noodles around the sad life of the recently widowed Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi). We observe Aoyama’s fond way with his teenage son, and his daily routine in a television production office. There are small but rather obvious gestures towards a sociology of contemporary Japan – the conservatism, the loneliness, the old-fashioned codes of romance, marriage and family.

Finally, an intrigue is hatched. Thanks to Aoyama’s workmate Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), a mock-audition is held. The screen role promised to aspiring, young actresses is a lie. This is Aoyama’s way of finding the ‘perfect woman’. And she materialises, in the form of the shy, demure Asami (Eihi Shiina).

Film buffs will detect the distant echo of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in this tale of a man attempting to recreate his lost love by moulding a woman’s identity to fit his exacting dream. But where Audition goes in its last forty minutes, once the scenario flips, generates a form of gruesome horror well beyond mainstream cinema. Welcome to the sadistic world of Miike Takashi, a world in which, as Asami helpfully informs us, "pain is truth".

Every Takashi movie seeks, above all, to boggle the viewer’s mind. He engineers surprise by suddenly shifting genre or abruptly changing tone mid-story. Here, by multiplying the disorientating moments when reality is revealed as fantasy, to the point where it is ultimately impossible to tell the difference, Takashi slyly manages to encourage diametrically opposed interpretations of his film.

On the one hand, Audition is a new version of Fatal Attraction (1987), relying on the stereotype of the violently psychotic woman lying in wait to make some unsuspecting man’s existence sheer hell. The glimpses of Asami alone in a dark room waiting for Aoyama to ring, or her chilling demand to "love only me", massage this sort of misogynistic reverie.

On the other hand, if much of what Asami says and does is Aoyama’s imagined projection, then the meaning of the film shifts radically. On this plane, Audition joins Memento (2000) and Abel Ferrara’s The Blackout (1997) as a record of the self-justifying convolutions that result from massive, male guilt.

These ambiguities gather upon the matter of what Asami really thinks of Aoyama’s initial deception. In bed with him, she expresses total acquiescence to his plan. In fact, she is glad to have found not a career, but a man. This is the zenith of the film’s depiction of her as a submissive, self-sacrificing wife-to-be.

Later, we will wonder whether this speech, too, is something that Aoyama has imagined. But when Asami ultimately speaks a contrary message, confronting Aoyama with his lies and wiles, we can be no surer that we are finally seeing the ‘real’ her.

Audition is a film that bears two viewings. The first time is for the delicious gruesomeness of its shocks. The second time is for an appreciation of its careful structure. Beyond that, there is little to explore or savour. Takashi’s work is – in the best sense – superficial, topical, ephemeral. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl once remarked: "It’s the kind of art that lasts five minutes – but you’ve got to give it that five minutes."

© Adrian Martin June 2002


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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