South Korea / Japan, 1999
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 09 October 2005
Source Lion’s Gate DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Women are brutalized in the horror genre habitually. Whether stabbed, raped, gouged, flayed, mutilated—women suffer agonizing deaths scored in their ear piercing screams. Most recognizable is their regular fate in slasher films, wherein sexuality (in desire and practice) is punished through death, but it is a tradition of discipline that extends far back into the horror oeuvre of literature and theatre. However easy it is to cite the harassment of women in this genre, a far more interesting discussion stems from the critical subtexts laid out in a number of horror films: women are not merely victim, but very often associated with the monster pursuing them, and ultimately superior horror films utilize female characters to critique larger social ills.
Certainly it is within Japanese, Korean, and other Asian film industries that the most fascinating and disturbing horror films are currently produced (although it is far too often that the American remake is the only version available), and Audition is one of the more notorious exports. The film’s exploration of the underlying terror in the Japanese social norm begins with an incredible sense of pacing—initially the film encourages doubt that there will be any chills for the audience, as its tone is more romantic and comedic than horrific. A man and his son are left widowed, with Aoyama, the father, eventually seeking remarriage. The pitch could have been used in a screwball comedy—why not seek a date through a bogus film audition, allowing Ayoama the power and privilege of choosing a girlfriend while avoiding the pitfalls of blind dates? This clever if chauvinistic advantage is Ayoama’s eventual undoing and representative of the gross benefits of patriarchy, particularly in Japanese culture. While it is made clear that Ayoama is a sympathetic character and dedicated parent, he still belongs to the domineering gender in Japan.
Audition also makes it difficult to ignore the subtext on the very real anxieties of dating. Dating is impossible for men that are so caught up in their professional lives their personal needs are pushed aside. It is easy to see why the notion of categorizing women — giving men sole choice in selecting a girlfriend or wife (and it is important to observe the assumption of men’s choice is ingrained in this film) — is such an ideal notion, as it removes the variables imposed in typical courtship. Aoyama, maintaining the traditions of older generations, is instantly smitten with the most bland and boring girl from the group, Asami. Her demeanor is one of absolute submission, appears in virginal white, tall and extraordinarily slender with movements almost alien in their deliberation. Her subservience seems nearly exaggerated, but becomes pointedly creepy when we see her waiting for Aoyama’s phone call on crouched knees in her tiny apartment. With her long black hair covering her face (a prominent indicator of a female lunatic in Asian horror films), Asami lifts her head ever so slowly as the phone rings, her teeth coming together in an eerie smile. Of course, the very large burlap bag lying conspicuously in the background that convulses abruptly as the phone rings is an even better signal that Aoyama is entirely unaware of what he has gotten himself into.
Asami exudes an appearance of helplessness, and is apparently very much the submissive girl Ayoama desires. Behind the façade there is dark history involving familial abuse, fear of abandonment, and an ability to withstand great physical pain, an attribute Asami considers both a great asset and a source of pride. Audition plays with the concept of not knowing your date, the vulnerability in trusting a stranger, and the great danger in one night stands stemming not so much from STDs, but a partner with a deeply troubled sexual history. Of course, in the horror genre there is retribution for this recklessness, and it is cropping up repeatedly in Asian cinema. For much of the 1980’s and early 1990’s women were punished for their dismissal of Japanese tradition through the media, particularly in rape fantasy films such as Nami and Red Porno, now cult classics. The plots center around brutal and often repeated rape exacted upon working women living alone or with a roommate in urban areas, for their sexual curiosity as much as their rejection of marriage and financial independence. (There is also Japanese animé, which often provides sexual excitement for men in the torture of women). With Audition, the woman is very much the monster due to extreme mistreatment by men, whether we cite her stepfather’s fetishist branding of her thigh or the sexual seduction and abandonment by past lovers. While it is unnerving to watch Asami perform physical dismemberment, it is much more chilling to hear her utter “Kiri kiri kiri kiri”—a repeated uttering of “deeper deeper deeper deeper…”
Although the film is patient in delivering its unexpected and thoroughly graphic climax, Audition wreaks havoc on the viewer in its final scenes. There is the specific sequence of torture, so deliberately executed and excruciatingly detailed that most viewers will cower at the sight. However, the psychological terror is so incredibly concentrated and well structured it eclipses the visual nightmare. Prior to entrapment, Asami drugs Aoyama, causing a hallucination with temporal leaps that discombobulate our sense of time and place, leaving us vulnerable along with Aoyama. Both for its complex recounting and visual intensity this scene deserves multiple viewings, as we learn the content of that burlap bag, fully realizing the horror of Asami’s mental scars and subsequent derangement, only to then witness a tour de force encounter with Aoyama and the women in his life. Clearly not a Fellini-esque reunion with former lovers, it is an awakening as the women of past and present simultaneously confront Aoyama’s lack of commitment and menacingly offer sexual favors. It is not clear if Aoyama really slept with his secretary, nor if he had lewd thoughts about his adolescent son’s girlfriend, but it is also not as crucial as the implication of an avaricious nature toward women.
Aoyama wakens only to witness Asami brandishing an S&M black apron over her white dress, arresting in its allusion to a schoolgirl’s uniform, as she proceeds in her loving duties. Asami desires for Aoyama to love only her, need only her, a devotion that cannot be attained without complete dependency. As psychotic as this sounds, consider how cut off women were for centuries, denied independence socially and financially (and obviously still are in parts of the world), thus completely relying on men for their needs. Asami’s revamped version of dependence may consist of removing limbs and other muscles, but it keeps her man close to home. Audition is designed to elicit a definitive reaction to its visceral contents, but its potency lies more so in its ability to outweigh its graphic horrors with the more assaulting issue of sexual politics.