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Tuesday, March 14, 2000

'AUDITION'

Mid-life crisis meets lethal psychosis


Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. Cynical advice, perhaps, but for the middle-aged male, too often true.

With more responsibilities and fewer options than his younger brothers, he can easily find himself in free fall, when he was only longing for freedom. His new business can be thrilling, until he winds up in bankruptcy court at age 50. An affair with a woman half his age can be wonderful, until it ends in a messy, expensive divorce, with hungry looks from his lover replaced by reproachful glances from his children. He tells himself he can always pick himself up and start over, but with each fall, the pavement gets harder, the climb back, longer.

Nonetheless, he keeps wishing. Time, he realizes with an urgency his younger brothers can seldom fathom, is running out. Happiness, whatever his vision of happiness may be, has to be now. His pursuit of it can look selfish, stupid or plain wrong-headed to those around him, but he can stop chasing his particular rainbow as easily as he can stop breathing.

The hero of Takashi Miike's new film, "Audition," is one such middle-aged man -- a representative type, especially in his talent for self-delusion. Miike has explored similar territory before, in such films as "Rainy Dog" and "Chugoku no Chojin (The Bird People in China)," but in "Audition" he goes far deeper. The film is reminiscent of "The Sixth Sense" in its hallucinogenic persuasiveness, but whereas M. Night Shaymalan's hit extols the power of love, "Audition" exposes the inexorability of evil, in all its cold, mocking fury.

Most Hollywood films about the dark side are little more than effects-driven melodramas without a particle of conviction behind them -- see Al Pacino's ham turn in "The Devil's Advocate" for an example. "Audition" doesn't just put on a Halloween costume and make scary faces -- it gives us a jolt of pure, unrefined terror, while reminding us, with skin-crawling starkness, that actions have consequences.

If "Fatal Attraction" made millions of married men swear off cheating (at least for the duration of the ride home from the theater), "Audition" may convince more than a few over-40 males to give up younger women altogether (or at least confine their leching to the Internet).

Its hero is an industrious sort, who runs his own small video distribution company. Also, far from being a haunter of Thai hostess bars, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower still in mourning for his wife seven years after her death. His teenage son tells him he ought to remarry -- he is starting to look old before his time -- and Aoyama is inclined to agree, but how can he find the right woman?

His ideal is modest, refined and accomplished in a traditional art, Western or Japanese, but where is he to find such a paragon among the vulgar, grasping, empty-headed masses of the younger generation?

His friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a worldly-wise movie producer, has an ingenious, if underhanded, solution: Hold an audition for the starring role in an upcoming film and take his pick from among the thousands of women certain to send in applications. The audition won't be a total sham, Yoshikawa assures the conscience-stricken Aoyama -- he really does intend to make a film, but the best bride material won't be among the finalists.

Why not, Aoyama wonders. "An actress able to play the lead in a film wouldn't marry you," his sage friend replies. "And women like that aren't suited for marriage anyway."

What Aoyama does find, after sifting through piles of resumes, is Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina): an attractive young woman with a haunting gaze, 12 years of ballet training and a refreshing seriousness about life. After suffering an injury that ended her ballet career at the age of 18, she writes in her resume essay, she underwent a shattering personal crisis and "learned to accept death." Clearly a woman after his own heart!

Aoyama is even more enamored when he meets the mysteriously lovely Asami at the audition. He all but declares his intentions in a passionate outpouring that leaves his friend Yoshikawa gaping. Undeterred by Yoshikawa's urgings to go slow, Aoyama decides, after a couple of dates and one passionate weekend at a hot spring, that Asami is the one for him.

What he doesn't see, when Asami answers the phone in her psychotic wreck of a room, is the sack in the background filled with a writhing human form. Love is blind, goes the cliche -- Aoyama is about to discover how dangerous blindness can be.

Working from a novel by Ryu Murakami, Miike and scriptwriter Daisuke Tengan play straight with the audience in laying a trap for their unsuspecting hero, leaving subtle hints while refraining from "Fatal Attraction"-like manipulations. But however aware we may be that Asami is bad news, we can't imagine how bad until she removes her mask -- and stands revealed in all her sweetly smiling, sugary-voiced, cruelly implacable rage.

As Asami, newcomer Eihi Shiina is perfectly cast. (I would have loved to attend her audition.) A pale-faced beauty with large, liquid eyes that can look soulful one moment, stone cold the next, she plays Asami to double-jointed perfection. Meanwhile, rock-vocalist-turned-actor Ryo Ishibashi turns in another finely edged performance in a long series, though one far removed from the tough guy types he usually plays. He injects an appealing vulnerability into a character who might, in other hands, have become irritatingly obtuse.

Among the film's few irritants is a smarmy, snarly bad guy turn by Renji Ishibashi as Asami's wheelchair-bound ballet instructor. He is a reminder of where too many other Miike films have headed -- straight for the video racks. But "Audition," which won an international critics' prize at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival, proves that Miike is ready for a bigger role -- as one of the leading Japanese directors of his generation.

"Audition" is the late show at Cine Palace in Shibuya.


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