Audition (1999)
May 20th 2023

If you’ve somehow avoided knowing anything about Takashi Miike’s Audition, do yourself the ultimate filmgoing favor of closing this review and going in cold. It’s one of horror’s greatest bait-and-switches, a slow-burn romance that descends into hell, and it remains just as visceral a watch as it was upon its release in 1999.

In the United States, Audition was one of the crown jewels among a crop of films categorized as “Asian Extreme,” movies for hardened genre fans that were more intense and violent than the ghostly J-horror that was exciting American audiences at the time (Ringu, Ju-On, etc.). It was quickly designated as a cult classic, and cemented Miike’s status as an outré icon in the eyes of horror fans. For such a prolific filmmaker as Miike, however, Audition represents both a small sliver of his work (it was one of five feature length films Miike released in 1999 alone, not to mention television work) and his prowess at maneuvering genre conventions for maximum effect.

Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club) plays a middle-aged television producer and widower named Aoyama, whose teenaged son encourages him to find a new wife after years of mourning. His fellow producer friend presents a scheme that feels straight out of a cheesy romantic comedy: they’ll hold a fake audition, luring attractive young women to try out for a role in a movie that does not exist, not knowing they’re actually auditioning for Aoyama. When the beautiful Asami (the model Eihi Shiina, in her first film role) walks in at the end of the day—in virginal white, exuding modesty and subservience, but also a biography of perseverance in the wake of tragedy—Aoyama knows he’s found the one. There’s no way for him to know how Asami waits for his call in an almost catatonic state, or what’s moving around in the burlap sack in her apartment.

Although most of the film has the tone of a romantic melodrama, there is a darkness present as early as the titular audition. The casual sexism that the male characters exhibit throughout is sickening, as is the deceit that propels Aoyama and Asami’s relationship. Aoyama deserves a comeuppance, but does he deserve what actually awaits him? The final third of the movie is a hallucinogenic collage of memories and fantasies, mixed with what Asami has in store for Aoyama on her apartment floor, complete with acupuncture needles and razor-sharp piano wire. For Miike, a director known for gleeful excess, whether in the form of comedy or gore, the scariest weapon he can wield is calm restraint.

Audition screens tonight, May 20, as well as May 21 and 25, on 35mm at Metrograph.