Still from 1999's "Audition."

His wife died seven years ago, and his mourning has led him to workaholism — he's a shell of his former self. Every action is tainted by memories of the life he had a decade prior; how happy he was, how fulfilled he was. Understandably, he doesn't want to tell himself that he's sabotaging his own happiness by refusing romantic affection.

 

Those closest to him can sense his misery. And most bothered is his 17-year-old son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), who just wants to see the man who raised him smile again. To see him in the arms of a woman who loves him. Lovingly, Shigehiko suggests his father try dating again — and that gentle nudge leads the latter to finally come to terms with his wife’s death. Like any single, middle-aged man, Shigeharu probes his salability on the dating market. In his younger years, he might have been content with going to bars, making small talk, and possibly getting a phone number. But now that his age and his past are easy to see in his eyes, and now that he's no longer a young man with the world in front of him, he's nervous. And probably doomed, as the late ‘90s, of course, did not have the plethora of dating sites now integral to the current romantic scene.

 

So when a friend, TV-producer Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), half-jokingly thinks up a convoluted scheme to find Shigeharu a mate, it actually seems appealing. With a wink, Yasuhisha suggests they host a casting call of sorts. They’ll pretend to be filmmakers looking for a leading lady for an upcoming project, but, in actuality, are looking for the woman of Shigeharu's dreams. Once they set their sights on the best woman for the "part," they'll say that finances fell through, but that Shigeharu'd like to continue a sort of relationship. While it's fucked up that these men are deceiving women in the name of self-interest, Shigeharu's desperation is so believable that we're partial to wanting to forgive his unethical search for his lobster.

 

After auditioning hundreds of hopeful women — all of whom think they're maybe in for their big break — Shigeharu settles for Asami (Eihi Shiina), a 20-something who's haute couture beautiful. He's as struck by her physical appearance as he is her apparent emotional maturity, and the more he gets to know her, the more he falls in love with her mind and her body. We can understand why: reserved and sweet, we find ourselves invested in her, gripped by her quiet charisma.

 

Shigeharu figures she couldn't be any more perfect. But when he digs deeper into her past — which is smart thinking, given the women who auditioned were not background checked — Yasuhisha is surprised to discover that much of what Asami has said about herself doesn't exactly line up. And that she has a couple connections to a trickle of grisly crimes. Shigeharu won't hear it: their romance is starting to bloom. But sometimes a dark past is difficult to overcome, and Shigeharu's lacking of intuition just might lead to something deadly.

 

That progression is among the many things Audition does well: it begins a riff on trite romantic comedies (the audition affair is clearly a jab at the genre's dependence on elaborate theatricality to find love) but ends an unusually lucid nightmare. Going into the film, one might think Miike would amplify the tension early on, refusing to let us relax even during the film's moments of tranquility. But subversively, all is treated as a romantic drama, up until the chilling moment when it increasingly becomes Jet Dry-clear that something is very, very wrong.

 

That shift in tone works here. Shigeharu has no reason to expect anything dangerous to come out of his decision to date again, so when the aftereffects prove themselves bloody, we're just as dumbfounded and horrified as he is. Like most classic horror movies, Audition turns a character's average anxieties into something a great deal more bewildering. It becomes personal — our empathy for Shigeharu is already so unmistakable that when he's brutally victimized, we feel it too.

 

But Audition is not black and white in its depiction of good and evil. Shigeharu and Asami are both provided scenes that depict them as predators and prey, though in differing shades. Shigeharu might eventually be subjected to another's sadistic pleasures, but such might not have happened if he hadn't exploited dozens of women in the interest of his own self-confidence. We also discover that Asamj was sexually and physically abused as a child, and that her psyche's synonymizing of pain and pleasure is not her fault, but an effect of monstrous authority figures imposing their sickening fetishes upon her. This discord benefits Audition's already provocative moral complexity. When we cannot one-dimensionally characterize an individual in a horror movie, suddenly the "this isn't real" mentality starts dissipating and the horrors start feeling palpable.

 

Since its release, the movie has both been deemed misogynist and feminist by a variety of critical voices. But thematically labeling Audition works against it. What it essentially is is a night terror vitalized by the celluloid, shocking and note-perfectly muted. Interpretation isn't necessary. Slip into the shoes of any one of these characters and you come out with an intelligent, shocking psychological thriller. And, most memorably, you'll never look at a sack the same way again. A-

DIRECTED BY

Takashi Miike

 

STARRING

Eihi Shiina

Ryo Ishibashi

Jun Kunimura

Tetsu Sawaki

Miyuki Matsuda

Toshie Negishi

Shigeru Saiki

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1999

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 55 Mins.

Audition October 26, 2017        

Finding love is hard enough as it is. Admitting that you're lonely and want someone to come home to is already a vulnerable action, perhaps a milestone. But even more difficult is having to go out and make an effort to try to end that loneliness, to put yourself out on the line and sacrifice a part of yourself to make an impression on another.

 

The protagonist of Takashi Miike's Audition (1999), Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), has suppressed his desire for love for what's felt like an eternity.