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Director: Takeshi Mike (Japan. South Korea). Year of Release: 1999

It’s been 7 years since Shigeharu Aoyama’s wife died, and his son is telling him that he’s starting to look old. So, he tells his mate Yoshikawa, who works in the film industry, that he’s going to get married. “Who to?”, asks his friend. “Oh, I don’t know yet.” But Aoyama has a reasonable idea of the sort of woman he’s looking for – in her twenties, with a degree of education. And it would be great if she could play the piano. Someone, in short, just like a younger version of his late wife.

Yoshikawa has a plan. They’ll advertise that they’re making a film and call on young women meeting Aoyama’s criteria to audition. He sends his friend the CVs of the applicants and tells him to select his favourite 30. Aoyama sits in on the auditions, occasionally butting in with questions which are either inappropriate (would you consider doing sex scenes? have you done pornos?) or irrelevant (what do you think about the films of Tarkovsky?)

The truth is, Aoyama had already made his decision before the auditions. Asami trained for many years as a ballerina, before an injury forced her out. She comes to the audition dressed in virginal white and speaks in a quiet submissive voice. Aoyama invites her to a meal to “discuss the role”. Written on the page, this looks excessively creepy, but the film – shot almost entirely from the POV of Aoyama – urges us to be complicit in the mindset of the privileged dirty old man.

Yoshikawa warns his friend against having too much to do with Asami, saying that he can’t put his finger on it, but something about her creeps him out. Her references don’t pan out – one disappeared mysteriously, while another met a brutal death. She was hacked into pieces and when they collected the body parts there were three fingers, one ear and one tongue too many. We are presented with this information later, for the moment Audition runs like a bland rom com.

About half way through, we get an intimation that something may be slightly awry. The main, fairly bland, scenes are interspersed with short cuts of Asami slumped on the floor, and filmed from behind. Next to her, a telephone sits on the floor, a bit further one we glimpse a white canvas sack, On about the third time that we see one of these scenes, the telephone rings and the sack jumps, as if there is something inside it.

Meanwhile, the plot lumbers on. Aoyama continues to take Asami to restaurants and bars, where they talk and she tells him how great he is. At the end of the evening, he gives her a ride in his taxi and she leaves on the street corner, never letting him know exactly where she lives. The relationship remains apparently chaste until they take a week-end away. In the hotel room, he suggests going to a museum. She removes her clothes and gets into bed, asking him to join her.

This is where the really weird shit starts. Aoyama is woken by reception ringing him, saying that his partner has left and asking whether he is still going to stay. He searches for Asami, but with little more than a CV to go on, he is unable to track her down. Then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose with the time structure, and we either delve into the past, or we are in the middle of the dream, or we’re making things up as we go along. For about 15 minutes, it’s hard to tell what is happening.

This is before we get to that of which we will not speak because of plot spoilers. Let us just say that for the first hour, probably the first hour and a half, I was a little confused why they were showing this particular scene in the Saturday night horror slot. I rarely cover my eyes during films, but in the final half hour, I spent very little time looking directly at the screen. I’m not sure I enjoy watching inflicted pain on screen, but if I did, I would highly recommend these scenes.

I’ve read somewhere that director Takeshi Mike intended to bore his audience as rigidly as possible, so that he could assault them with the final carnage. It’s a risky strategy – who wants to spend an hour or more in a cinema just being bored? – but he just about pulls it off. I think that he manages to do this partly because we spend some time asking exactly how sleazy Aoyama is. Although we see everything through his eyes, we occasionally question his sense of privilege.

Because here’s the thing. If you stop for one minute to think of it, setting up auditions with women a couple of decades younger than you, so that you can choose a possible wife isn’t just pathological, it shows a feeling of entitlement that doesn’t consider the fact that the women are expecting you to give them a job and are in a dependent relationship with you. Aoyama is not the romantic widower that some reviewers make out. He regularly abuses his position of power.

This all brings us to the most important question about the film, which is almost impossible to answer without plot spoilers, so we’ll stick to very broad brush strokes. There are (at least) two possible readings of Asami. Is she an avenging angel or a bunny boiler? The smart money is on the former option, but Aoyama would still argue that she is a lost little girl who would only benefit from his patronising (in both senses of the world) benevolence.

Audition is a disturbing film, and I mean this as a compliment. There are a few things that I’m not convinced about – it is too boring for too long, and the batshit crazy stuff is just too weird – but at least it makes you think. And whilst it may or may not be an intentionally feminist film, at least it leaves itself open to a feminist interpretation. Give it a go and make your own mind up. It’s certainly worth that.

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