“Words create lies. Pain can be trusted.”
It seemed a few years back that the horror genre was in crisis. Studios were pumping out horror movies, only to be panned by critics and audiences alike. More than any other genre, blockbuster horror has fallen too comfortably into tropes. Everyone knows them, and it’s even become a trope to parody them. We have the slasher film, the zombie apocalypse, the home invasion thriller, the ghost story. One that I’d like to discuss today, with the help of the 1999 Japanese film Audition, is a subgenre that has come to be known as torture porn. In these movies, physical pain is inflicted upon victims for large portions of the film, and it’s almost always gory and gruesome. It’s a film that sells tickets on disgust and shock value. Notable examples include the Saw franchise, the Human Centipede movies, The Devil’s Rejects, and Saw.
While I think Audition would fall under this same category, it distinguishes itself in that you wouldn’t know it for quite some time. The film begins with a man, Shigeharu Aoyama (played by Ryo Ishibashi) dealing with the death of his wife. Still a single father seven years later, he decides to remarry at the advice of his son. His coworker has an idea to hold a fake film audition in which Aoyama can secretly scout for a new wife. After viewing the applicants, he is most intrigued by Asami (Eihi Shiina), a young woman with a mysterious past. The plot is fairly unique, but this “mysterious lover with dark secrets” trope feels uninspiring, and you’ll feel confident in the first half of the film that you know how it plays out. The fascinating thing about Audition is that it takes a while to get there, and that’s not a bad thing. Writer and director Takashi Miike drops subtle hints, intriguing plot points throughout the first hour of the film, but he withholds any actual violence for the majority of the movie. Only in the last thirty minutes does the movie start to feel like torture porn, and it’s one of the most unsettling sequences you’ll see in a film.
I’d like to focus in on the plot structure, because it really sets Audition apart from similar titles. After a long expository portion of the film, all we know is that Aoyama is in love with this woman and she’s utterly sinister. We get information about her past: she used to be a dancer, she has a burn on her leg from her childhood, and she sat patiently by her telephone for days waiting for Aoyama to call while someone is tied up in a bag in the same room. I always enjoy when a film shows us early on that something is evil about the antagonist, because you’re never going to surprise anyone with this information (particularly if you have her on the poster for the film in a malicious pose). Audition lets us know early on that Asami is not what she seems, but it’s a film that teases its audience for over an hour on what actually happened in this woman’s past. The mystery is the details, and the protagonist has to piece together a puzzle. Far too many films will hit their audience with some “here’s my dark past and an explanation of why I’m evil” speech, but Audition is a bit lighter on this kind of revelation, relying more on flashbacks and cutaways, and it makes for a finer film.
In the final 30 minutes, the movie delivers on its gory promises with a disturbing torture sequence unlike most any other in mainstream horror. Some horror directors will leave the damage to the audience’s imagination through suggestive cinematography, but not in this case. You see every stinging blow that Asami inflicts on her victim, proving that Miike is a director who doesn’t hold back when it comes to a thrilling climax. Because the victim is also under a drug-induced paralysis, you get this strange dream sequence in the middle of the torture where everything appears normal. Aoyama is in love, about to be married, and it was all just hallucination. Thankfully, Audition cuts right back into the action, rejecting this fantasy and bringing another dose of the torture, refusing to let audiences get off this cleanly. Not only does the scene feel particularly earned due to the tameness of the film thus far, but it’s shot in a powerful, stinging way that really makes for a truly disturbing scene.
In my research for the film (I read the Wikipedia article), I discovered different interpretations about the portrayal of women in the movie. Some have claimed that the film is anti-woman, focusing on women as obedient and merely objects for the men of the film. The way Aoyama finds a bride is certainly objectifying and deplorable, and many have criticized the film for portraying its protagonist so sympathetically. Others, however, have claimed that the film is pro-woman, suggesting that Asami is striking back against this objectification. Both are interesting interpretations, and I really don’t see this as a film that was attempting to make a statement about the role of women, but I’m less inclined to agree with this latter interpretation. The protagonist is rather deplorable in his methods, and his ultimate victory over Asami seems to suggest we’re supposed to root for him in the standard convention of horror films. However, I wondered at times if this is simply a cautionary tale. Perhaps the film is saying that deception is no way to find love.
To touch base with the state of the horror genre, I think things are getting better. It has taken a new generation of filmmakers to really take a look at the state of horror movies and reject the use of boring tropes. In just the last few years, we’ve seen some stunning creations by visionaries who realize that horror isn’t about jump scares. It’s about a sensation of despair and bleakness that unsettles an audience, rather than just racking up screams. The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch – these movies give me hope for a new generation that can prove once again that horror is one of the most stimulating, artistically fulfilling genres in cinema. While I don’t think Audition is among this new generation, you can’t discount its significance. The slow burn of the plot, culminating in one of the most frightening sequences I’ve seen on screen – it’s a fine piece of horror. Though it relies on torture porn elements, it’s a film that seems to suggest that horror tropes are in place for a reason. We just have to be careful how we use them.
Films Left to Watch: 928