Beset with distribution problems from the outset because of its difficult subject matter, Audition has nevertheless become a cult classic, a testament to the remarkable abilities of its director, Takashi Miike, and to the powerful performances it contains. It's a difficult film to classify, as it contains scenes of intense horror, but there is also a strong element of romance, and mystery and comedy besides.

The first hour and a half tells the story of a bereaved man searching, after many years alone, for a new wife. The idealistic Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is assisted by a film producer friend who suggests that they hold an audition to help him meet the right sort of girl. This is approached with wit and good humour, yet the film subtly demonstrates the cruelty involved in disappointing all those hopeful young actresses, and it is here that a gradual change in mood occurs. When Shigeharu begins to become obsessed with the beautiful and refined Asami (Eihi Shiina), his friend warns him that something about her doesn't seem right, yet neither man realises there is another audition taking place, and that failure could be fatal.

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The gentle pace with which this film develops enables it to explore all of its characters sensitively and perceptively; unlike most horror movies, it enables the viewer to get really close to those in danger. Its greatest success, however, is in detailing the relationships between these characters. Shigeharu's domestic circumstances, living with his son and their dog, hiring a housekeeper with lamentable cooking skills, are beautifully delineated and utterly believable.

Like many such heroes, Shigeharu fails to notice the other opportunities for love in his life, but Audition isn't interested in pursuing a conventional story of foolishness and redemption. When it twists, it twists violently, irrevocably, and the nastiness of the last half hour is unmatched in modern cinema. If there is redemption here, it is bought at a high price. Audition is a story about damaged people and the things they do to one another because they cannot make sense of the accidental cruelties of life. It pulls no punches. Scenes of torture may turn the stomach, but underlying them is a greater psychological horror. There is also an unabashed eroticism about these scenes that adds to their emotional complexity.

The story told in Audition is not linear; much of what we are presented with must be classed as supposition, and the order of events is not always clear, yet this helps us to get closer to the mental state of the characters during the latter stages. Truth is an important theme, but the film cautions viewers regarding the different ways in which truth can be perceived. This is also a film about love, and about need, and the danger of confusing the two. It makes potent use of landscape and fashion to outline the differences between the worlds in which Shigeharu and Asami live, bringing them together in sterile environments that never seem quite real. The audacity and elegance of Audition make it an outstanding piece of cinema.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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A widower becomes infatuated with a shy ex-ballet dancer and her mysterious past.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Miike Takashi

Writer: Daisuke Tengan, based on a story by Ryu Murakami

Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Miyuki Matsuda, Renji Ishibashi, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura

Year: 1999

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan

Festivals:

EIFF 2000

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