I remember watching The Exorcist the first time it was shown on British TV. I failed to see what all the fuss was about- to me, it looked dated and the special effects seemed crude compared to what I was used to. I remember sneaking into the pictures aged 12 to see The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project. The latter had been the subject of much media hype over its validity (for a brief time I did actually think it was real) and I remember being really creeped out by what wasn't there- the suggestion of something untoward was alot more frightening than an obvious stalk-and-slash killer or some lame-ass CGI monster.
Still, I always found that the majority of American horror films were more about the gore than being genuinely frightening. They were designed to appeal to teenagers looking for a cheap and easy sick thrill. Sooooo, as I learned more about film- and foreign cinema- I began to love films like The Devil's Backbone and the Tartan Asia Extreme series. Of these, one in particular stood out for me- Takashi Miike's 1999 blood splattered...erm... romantic comedy (yes, really), Audition.
Recommended by a former uni lecturer who was somewhat of an expert in Japanese cinema, I trotted along to the library, picked it up and settled down to watch. For the first time I couldn't watch a horror film right until the end- but I was completely transfixed. In the last few years I've tried to track it down every time I had gift vouchers or was perusing through world cinema sections in shops... but, frustratingly, it was always either sold out or not in stock at all. Thankfully, I found it on the off-chance when I was spending my Christmas voucher for FOPP- for a bargain £6!!! Score! I saw it as fate, and snapped up the last copy before any of the other geeks in the foreign film section got an eyeful. The Boy is also an avid gore fan, and I'd brought up this film more than a little emphatically on several occasions. Since I was going to visit him that night I took it with me, and wondered how I'd fare second time around.
The story opens on a middle aged man, Aoyama, visiting his dying wife Ryoko in hospital. His young son arrives just as she has passed away. Seven years on, and Aoyama is still alone. Encouraged by his now-teenage son, he decides the time is right to start looking for a new partner. The best way to go about this, apparently, is by holding a fake film audition. He becomes enamoured by one girl, the virginal and balletic Asami. His friend and fellow auditioner thinks there's something strange about her, but Aoyama sets about trying to woo her via phone calls and dinner dates. So far, so romantic comedy. For the first hour or so, you actually forget what you're watching- it jogs along at a gentle pace with a sweetly blossoming romance and a few chuckles along the way. There's even a parallel burgeoning romance between Aoyama's teenage son and his school sweetheart thrown in for good measure.
So there you are, sitting quite the thing watching a nice wee love story play out. Our hero seems cheerier, his worn-out pallor replaced by a sense of rejuvenation and the first flushes of romance. We see him dial Asami's number, then cut to the interior of her flat. She is sitting on the squalid, bare floor, huddled, with the phone lying in the middle of the room. A large, lumpy canvas sack is lying there too. The phone buzzes into life and at that moment, the canvas sack jerks violently. Asami flashes a chilling smile and from then on the film begins a dizzying downward spin. There IS something strange about this girl- but something far more horrible than we can imagine. She and Aoyama then go on a weekend retreat together, but in the morning he wakes up alone. When he decides to start delving deeper into the enigmatic Asami's murky past he finds out deeply troubling, gruesome discoveries about her (something he should have maybe looked into before taking her on a second date but hey, it ain't my movie...)
It's difficult to summarise the final act of the film without giving away too much of what happens: it really should be seen to be believed. The problem is, since watching the film the first time, I have since watched Oldboy and Lady Vengeance among others; films which are far more violent and gory than Audition. However, the beauty of this film is in its subtlety- unusual for a director with an average workrate of three movies a year. It unfolds almost painstakingly slowly and nothing is given away easily. Even while reading more about it online, I found loads of different reviews suggesting meanings and subtexts I hadn't even picked up on. Most of the violence is on screen but not made blatant- we get a flash of it, then see the end result, but it's not the same as, say, Vincent Cassell smashing in a rapist's skull with a fire extinguisher in Irreversible. And that wasn't even a horror...
Despite how it may appear, there is a strong moral core to the film. The final act becomes Asami's story; a lost, lonely child, subjected to abandonment and horrific cruelty, grows up to exact her own form of revenge. Our situations are the creation of our own actions and entrapments, and Miike shows us this the consequences in the most inhumane way. The morality and feminist-revenge-drama angles may not be what the film is remembered for- indeed, it only really occurred to me whilst watching it a few days ago. Once I'd gotten past the gore, had an idea of what was coming and concentrated on the story.
The problem is, any message the film is trying to sell is going to be overshadowed by the gut-churning violence. I'm not especially squeamish about blood- it doesn't bother me since Scream revealed that it's mostly corn syrup and food dye. What really gets me, however, is anything to do with bones breaking or being crushed... and this film almost had me reaching for the sick bucket. It achieves all this whilst looking utterly beautiful-each scene is set up perfectly, from the clinical starkness of Ryoko's deathbed to the lurid neon lights of Asami's old neighbourhood, via her dark, bare apartment pulsating with unknown terror. The acting too is top notch- I was thoroughly scared of Asami and her innate creepiness, and felt genuinely sorry for her prospective Romeo as he finally braved another shot at companionship. It's frustrating because alot of the shock value is in seeing it for the first time, without knowing what's going to happen. As such there's not much you can say about the ending without a huge **SPOILER ALERT!** at the top of the review. This is not a film for the faint of heart, but it is one for anyone looking for a stylish, intelligent, psychological thriller with some real scares thrown in. Well crafted, brilliantly plotted and painstakingly paced, it's an example in film making... Just keep the lights on and remember it's only a movie.