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A film that failed in its native Japan, a director who challenges the very boundaries of modern morality, a model turned actress in her first ever movie role. Takashi Miike’s Audition instigated the greatest ever critical walkout at Cannes with many stumbling for the nearest sick bag. Prepare to go deeper...

Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is lonely. Feeling the need for a female companion, as much from the encouragement of his teenage son (Tetsu Sawaki) as the demands of a Japanese society that deems a man, even a widower like himself, deficient lest he have a wed, Aoyama resolves to discover a dutiful woman and get re-married. As it’s been 20 years since his last date, and with the memory of his dearly departed wife still somewhat raw, Aoyama is uncertain as to how to proceed in meeting the right woman.

As the affection of one of the staff of his video production company goes unnoticed, the effect of an ill-advised sexual encounter that has been conveniently hidden at the back of his mind, Aoyama decides to consult his close friend Shibata (Ren Osugi), also a player in the industry. As the pair pick apart prospective projects Shibata hits upon the idea of holding an audition for a forthcoming film, whose chances of ever reaching fruition are very slender indeed, from which Aoyama may screen a potential bride from any number of applicants for the central role. Aoyama agrees.

As the casting call spreads its net far and wide, Aoyama gradually becomes disheartened as the gruelling schedule of interviews fails to throw up anyone of interest. That is, until Asami (Eihi Shiina), a former ballet dancer with absolutely no acting experience, appears before him. Bewitching the bachelor with her seemingly simple innocence, Aoyama is certain he’s found the one for which he’s been looking. Surreptitiously contacting her a couple of weeks later to inform her that funding for the film has fallen through, Aoyama is smitten and instigates a relationship that the far younger Asami appears to relish.

Upon checking out her references and discovering that they do not correspond to Asami’s story, Shibata warns his friend to be cautious. Aoyama originally concurs but then ignores this essential advice. After sleeping together for the first time, Asami promptly disappears. Not wishing to let this opportunity lie, Aoyama searches the city for clues, uncovering a bizarre trail of disappearances before encountering a disfigured old man with some eerily unpleasant information, to discover that his future fiancée may not be at all who she once purported to be.

With all ostensibly lost as his private investigation peters out, Aoyama returns home where his favourite tipple has been tampered with. Waking to a creeping horror that the drug in his drink has rendered him paralysed, Aoyama’s tension turns to terror upon observing that Asami has broken into his home, armed with an excruciating array of instruments, aimed to exact an agonising retribution for his audition deception. Wince? Watch on if you can…

With the current furore over Ichi The Killer looking set to run and run, Takashi Miike’s reputation as the foremost exponent of extreme cinema remains assured. However, it’s precisely for what you don’t see for the vast majority of this movie that makes the final 20 minutes such a sledgehammer blow to the senses. As referred to in Chris Campion’s accompanying film notes, Miike is the master manipulator of the emotions of an audience, much as was Hitchcock. Where Campion draws close parallels with Psycho, I would argue that Audition bears much closer relation to The Birds. Here, the suspense is built stage by stage in that the audience is very aware that Asami is going to go loco in the final act; much as it’s obvious that Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren will come to face a terrifying attack from winged antagonists. The directorial skill is on display is that Audition starts out as a slightly skewed love story (just as <The Birds[/i] began as a sort of screwball comedy between the Taylor and Hedren characters) balancing on the edge of banality until the audience reaches the verge of screaming for something to happen and then satisfying that desire with some truly overwhelming sequences.

Yes, the ending of Audition will provoke the greatest discussion, as perhaps it is entitled to do so. Yet, never is there a hint of cheap horror schlock as Miike is quite content for the sound to envelop the audience as Asami undertakes her disgusting deed with the mental images formed being far worse than anything actually shown on screen. For someone as opposed to the mere sight of a needle as I, this takes some beating, but it’s the soft whisper of “Kiri! Kiri! Kiri!” that is easily the most unsettling and none of this is possible without the insipid 80 minutes that precedes the sequence. Audition

Central to this success is the outstanding off-kilter performance from first time actress Eihi Shiina. It’s mighty impressive stuff from someone who, although not unfamiliar with being in front of a camera in her previous profession as a model, has never been subject to such scrutiny. Subtle and skilled with no little gravitas, it’s an acting turn that required considerable bravery due to an observable backlash that would follow from the feminist lobby. Free from such considerations is Ryo Ishibashi as Aoyama, oozing class as the single father who’s all at sea in his emotional landscape, relying on his son and friends for dating advice.

Both performances are completed by Miike’s direction, lensed with a style that is never intrusive and, even when utilising dream sequences and pseudo flashbacks, never resorts to narrative gimmickry.

Rather like the similar Tartan release of Ring, the transfer for Audition has passed into modern DVD myth, not for the right reasons. No, it’s not very good. In fact, it’s poor as to be a great deal more shocking than the events that the transfer is trying to depict on screen (and that’s really saying something!).

Anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.85:1, the image is overly dark. Blacks are nowhere near deep enough and shadow detail is often swamped in pixellation so as to make character’s voices seemingly seep from the murkiness. Colours are indeed muted to the point of conscious desaturation, although this should be credited to director Miike and his cinematographer rather than the transfer, with delineation being very shaky due to the excessive grain.

Subtitles too are given short shrift. Of the nasty burnt in variety, the subtitles are rendered in a small pale white font which, you’ve guessed it, gets easily lost during the frequent periods where a white background or Asami’s brilliant dress dominates the frame. During the times when they are legible, at least the subtitles are grammatically correct and correspond closely to the spoken dialogue.

All of the above is compounded by squeezing the film (nearly two hours of it) and extras onto a DVD-5. Despite not being able to gauge the bitrate accurately, it’s a safe bet that it’s not very high at all and is therefore unable to maximise the quality of an unacceptably poor transfer.

Like the visuals, the sonics are the butt of some shoddy treatment too. Granted, a two channel stereo output is perfectly reasonable for a movie without bombs and gun battles such as this but dialogue is so indistinct due to a muddy soundtrack with plenty of hiss that it’s criminal. The principal victim of the sludgy stereo track is Eihi Shiina, whose soft slow cadence as Asami, perhaps the foremost trait to make her character quite so chilling as she goes about her gruesome amputation activities, is lost among the fuzz.

Channel separation is seriously lacking, particularly when it could have been used to create a suitably edgy atmosphere such as the original audition sequence itself where Aoyama meets Asami for the first time.

Top billing in the special features department should go to the unmediated interview with director Takashi Miike. Clearly subtitled (thank heavens!), this is a brief 12 minute affair in which Miike looks clearly uncomfortable in attempting to address the issues that his film has raised. Well known for his reluctance that he, or indeed anyone else, should delve too deeply into his work for a definitive reading, it’s encouraging that he’s appeared in front of a camera at all. Tentatively he illustrates how the slow pace of the first two thirds of the movie was an entirely intentional ploy to bring the audience to the edge of boredom before bowling them over with the finale; how he paid little attention to the book (or even the script) in favour of an more extreme ending; how he eschews all discussion of his movie in terms of either a feminist revenge story or even a horror movie. When the man who has made cinema experiences as extreme as Ichi The Killer describes Audition simply as ‘a love story gone wrong’, this all-too brief glimpse will leave you crying out for a commentary.

Accompanying this interview is a brief critique of the film from cineaste Chris Campion. Like the interview it’s a frustratingly slight extra, just a couple of text pages skimming over the similarities with Hitchcock and the use of fish as a leitmotif which begs further analysis.

Filmographies for the main cast are also listed. While they’re nice to have for an actor of Ryo Ishibashi’s stature, it’s debatable that these are strictly necessary as Eihi Shiina and Tetsu Sawaki, who plays Aoyama’s son, are making their first screen appearances.

The Japanese and U.K. theatrical trailers are included too. While the image quality of these is downright depressing (if you think it’s difficult to beat the drabness of the movie transfer just head here), it’s interesting to compare the two in how they’ve been meticulously manufactured to address conspicuously contrasting cultures.

A trailer reel of titles from the ‘Tartan Extreme Asia’ collection also makes it onto the disc highlighting such other quality Far Eastern fare as John Woo’s Hard Boiled, with Hideo Nakata’s Ring and Ring 2.

A screensaver featuring revolving critical quotes (all two of them) is an option for those who wish to install it on their PC and it’s this which completes the special features package. At least some care and attention has been put into the animated menu design which features key images from the movie although the soundtrack loop might become a little annoying after the initial few navigations.

It’s a great film and, although you’ll need a cast-iron constitution to stomach the conclusion without resorting to the foetal position, not fuelled by gratuitous gore. Eschewing the conventional horror/thriller, Audition plays more like a Far Eastern take on Fatal Attraction with no histrionics and a greater psychologically satisfying denouement.

When a film is this good it’s a scandal that the quality of the appending Tartan DVD release can’t come close. The sound is poor and the transfer worse still which is doubly unfortunate when it’s difficult enough to secure quality cult and foreign films in the UK marketplace. Admittedly there are several other versions of this title available online, in various regions, and I’d strongly advise that you take a chance on this twisted love story. For once, you can believe the hype...