The X-Treme Factor: Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) – Blu-ray review
Still think The X Factor is harsh? Imagine if one of the contestants suddenly turned on Simon Cowell.
(Takashi Miike, 1999)
It’s the stuff that rom-com legends are made of. Widower decides to remarry and holds an audition to find the perfect replacement. He finds his dream girl: demure, willowy, mysterious. Oh, and what a kook she is, too – with a monstrous, grunting something stashed away in a sack and a hobby of inflicting lacerating pain on the men in her life. Hang on, wait a minute – what?
The enduring power of Audition is the sublime confidence with which it plays its bait-and-switch, until you never want to see another date movie again just in case it turns out like this one. Takashi Miike upturns the cosiest of conventions, destabilises not only the trappings of genre but even the certainties of narrative, and does so with impeccable restraint and classical filmmaking craft. It’s a film to show to students to teach them about technique; well, it would be, were it not so extreme.
Even from the start, despite the superficial quirkiness, there’s an underlying unease, a creepiness to proceedings that serves as a warning. One character even speaks of life as an “endurance test,” which ought to serve as this film’s mantra. Miike frames from a distance, keeping his hero Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) at one remove; it highlights the character’s loneliness and desperation, but also shuns the obvious grammar of the rom-com by avoiding close-ups.
By the time of the audition, the film is downright menacing – a study of the male gaze and a bleak satire of the entertainment biz. [It’s actually even more resonant now, because in his black jacket and white shirt, Ryo looks like a Japanese Simon Cowell.] The women are viewed through the prism of the men’s prurient, degrading questions, and yet must bow and smile. The courtship that follows between Aoyama and Asami (Eihi Shiina), full of polite banalities – yet set against blazing passion-red backdrops – is an acute look at the ridiculousness of social convention.
And that’s what’s so wrenching, when Miike pulls the foundations apart. The imaginary Hollywood remake might have handled the material as a straight-up feelgood piece, or followed this story’s instincts into psychological thriller territory, as it becomes a detective film to find the dark backstory behind Asami’s apparent wholesomeness. But Miike subverts even that, through elliptical cuts and dream sequences. Every answer that is proffered simply confuses matters further, not least because the film is shot and edited with a disquieting rawness worthy of David Lynch.
And then comes the literal taking apart of the hero, in a climax that remains borderline-unwatchable. Sceptics might argue that the calm pacing that leads to this point is a cynical exercise in prolonging and enhancing the exploitative horrors – and sure, it is. But there’s a remorseless logic and a savage irony that fulfils all of the film’s swirling subtexts. Not least is the brilliant performance by Eihi, who treats the gruelling set-pieces with the mischievous twinkle of a star. In her own strange way, Asami is still auditioning, still hoping to get noticed. Well, frankly, she’s got my attention.