Friday, April 25, 2008

Miike Marathon :: Audition (1999)

Perhaps it was always inevitable that I would make my way to the films of Takashi Miike, not only because he is one of the most important names in horror today but also because his films, like David Lynch's, are often experimental, are usually drenched in surrealism and metaphor, and are constantly pushing the thresholds of the medium past their normal tolerances, all of which are elements that, in the hands of a competent artist - dare I say, auteur - like Miike, results in some truly spectacular cinema. Though his chosen grammar may contain a slightly more than healthy helping of arterial spray, Miike is a legitimate filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously not only by the horror hounds but by serious film critics everywhere.

The Japanese precursor to (and one of the primary inspirations behind) such films as Saw and Hostel, Takashi Miike's Audition stormed onto the world's cinematic stage while the North American film industry was still trying to tell us that self-parodic films like Scream were scary. While not really a horror film, though its final act is rather horrific, Audition laid waste to many Western ideas of what was frightening and redefined what it meant for a film to be scary or disturbing.

A lonely Japanese man, Aoyama, is told by his son that he should remarry. His friend, a movie producer, offers to stage an audition that would allow Aoyama to pick and chose the kind of woman he would like to be with. Almost immediately he is drawn to Asami, even though his friend is unnerved by her and even though she seems to be lying about who she is. Aoyama and Asami begin a courtship that is awkward and charming and which, except for a few hints dropped to the audience, appears normal enough. Aoyama, it seems, is genuinely a decent man and he is more than a little ashamed of the false pretenses that brought them together. However, while he may have some skeletons lurking about his closest, they are nothing compared to Asami's, which include abuse, torture, murder and a very monstrous idea of what it means to love someone.

Unlike most horror films, Audition takes its time. Not worried about filling the screen with a constant barrage of blood and guts (Miike will do that in other films... but that's another story for another time), Audition is a slow burn. The first two acts simply smolder, laying the foundation and dropping the occasional and disconcerting hint about what might actually be going on. Even when its final act does begin and Miike's trademark penchant for nerve-jangling shock images takes over the style remains surprising restrained and deliberate, especially when compared to the outright psychosis and strobe light editing of Dead or Alive, which Miike also released in 1999.

While it may sound like an exercise in sensationalism (and this is one of his less sensational efforts), it is hard to ignore Miike's mastery of the medium. In one of the film's more daring sequences, Aoyama, drugged, is thrust into a dream-like altered reality in which he hallucinates things that we as an audience are already aware of but which he himself has not yet learned. Miike, in an act of dizzying virtuosity, has crashed the walls of dramatic irony and actually used the device as a narrative point.

This brash willingness to ignore convention, coupled with a wicked and bloody sense of humour that borders on - but never completely gives itself over to - sadism, defines Miike's work and makes him an important director not only in Japanese horror but also in all of world cinema. If I were to make a comparison, I would compare Miike with Canada's own David Cronenberg since both of them feel free to use often shocking or extreme images but they use them within a very specific and metaphoric context. William Blake wrote "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." While Audition may not lead to the palace of wisdom, or to any palace for that matter, its excesses and the excesses of many of Miike's films are artistically justifiable, I think, and make for a breathtaking, if somewhat unsettling, cinematic experience.

Here's another take on the film.

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