Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: Audition

By Orrin Grey

auditionAudition(1999). Director: Takashi Miike. Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina. Country: South Korea.

I worked at a video store for several years, and one of the questions I was most often asked was: “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” My stock answer was always: Audition.

Looking back, I don’t know if Audition really is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely among the most disturbing. Unfortunately, it’s also the very definition of a movie that works better the less you know about it going in. In fact, if you haven’t seen it before, I’ve already told you too much. Don’t read the rest of this column. Don’t learn anything else about Audition. Just go watch it, right now.

If you have already seen it, then you know what I’m talking about. Singing the praises of Takashi Miike to anyone reading a column on international horror cinema is probably preaching to the choir, but when I first watched Audition I’d never even heard of Miike, hadn’t even seen very much Asian horror, and had no idea of what I was getting into.

Audition predates the so-called “torture porn” phenomenon that’s hit US theatres in the last decade, and several of the filmmakers who helped define that genre have cited Miike as an inspiration. While there are definitely scenes in Audition that would be right at home in those movies (and scenes that probably outdo most of them at their own game, for my money), what makes Audition really surpass the average “torture porn” film is the way that it lulls you. The scenes of horror are what will stick in your mind after seeing the movie, but upon revisiting it, I found that they make up a remarkably small percentage of its running time. Their intensity is a testament to how carefully they’re nestled into the real humanity that makes up the rest of the film.

The first time I saw Audition, it was like a palpable blow, a movie that I just experienced without really being able to deconstruct it at all. What was most interesting to me on revisiting it were the ways in which it echoes and undercuts traditional Hollywood romantic comedies.

For its first half or so, Audition plays out almost exactly like a low-key romantic comedy. In the first few seconds, we see our protagonist, Shigeharu, lose his wife to illness. Our sympathies are immediately with Shigeharu and his son, who seem to have a very good relationship with one another. The movie skips ahead seven years, and Shigeharu’s son is encouraging him to remarry. This is where the film’s hook comes in, as one of Shigeharu’s television producer friends suggests a fake audition to help him find a new wife.

The titular audition is exactly the kind of poorly-conceived-but-well-meant deception that forms the catalyst for so many romantic comedies, and the sequence in which the two men interview the candidates is played (very effectively) for laughs.

If Audition were a Hollywood romantic comedy, the deception would play out for awhile and then Shigeharu would reveal it in the final scenes of the movie, culminating in a happy reconciliation where all is forgiven and forgotten. Audition turns that formula on its head, however, and the fruits of Shigeharu’s seemingly-innocent deception are much more tragic and much darker.

To what extent these parallels were intended by Miike I couldn’t say, but Audition is a movie that holds up to and even rewards being viewed from multiple interpretations, especially the second time around.

I don’t know that I’d be constitutionally capable of a third.