Boys Don’t Cry and more
Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Tetsu Sawaki
(The Film Company; US theatrical: 6 Oct 1999; 1998)
The title of Takashi Miike’s unsettling horror film refers to the main character’s unorthodox way of finding a wife, but also marks Audition as a test of audiences’ mettle.
Audition (Odishon) was in the forefront of a wave of films from Japan that combine the characteristics of traditional Japanese ghost stories with contemporary settings and an emphasis on character development unusual in Western, and especially American, horror. Often classified under the category J-horror, Ringu (1998), Odishon (1999), Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002), Ju-on (2003), and Chakushin ari (2003) incorporate vengeful ghosts, hauntings, and a notion of karmic balance that calls for expiation of past wrongs; and rely on traditional movie effects—set design and decoration, atmospheric lighting, make-up, and analog processes such as stop- or reverse-motion—for suspense and chills. All but Auditionwere remade as American releases, as, respectively, The Ring (2002), Dark Water (2005), The Grudge (2004), and One Missed Call (2008).
Don’t expect an American version of Audition to come to your multiplex any time soon. Halfway through the film, characters and audience plunge into a sadomasochistic nightmare of betrayal, torture, and mutilation that might not sit well with mainstream U.S. audiences.
The film begins innocently enough, with Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), along with his young son Shigehiko, at the hospital bedside of his dying wife. Our sympathy for Aoyama established, the film jumps forward seven years. Aoyama, who wants to remarry, is convinced by his friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) to interview candidates under the guise of auditioning actresses for a film.
From the moment he reads her application, Aoyama is intrigued by one prospective actress, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), who seems to possess all the qualities he desires in a mate: she’s young, sweet, and docile, with poise and grace derived from her training as a ballet dancer. They begin dating, and the film promptly veers from romantic comedy and family drama territory to something darker. Iconic J-horror shots of Asami, her face obscured by her long hair, sitting on the floor in front of an old-fashioned rotary phone waiting for Aoyama’s call, introduce a feeling of dread.
When Asami eventually disappears and Aoyama tries to find her, the film’s heretofore linear, logical narrative begins to unravel. Aoyama’s search takes him to the boarded-up ballet studio where Asami studied as a child, and the bar where she claimed to work. In both locales, ambiguous scenes play as either flashback exposition, or Aoyama’s imaginings: Asami being burned by her stepfather, the ballet master; fingers and a tongue writhing on the bar floor.
Dreams, waking fantasies, and reality eventually become indistinguishable. When Aoyama passes out at home one evening (drugged by Asami?), the ensuing montage—conversations with Asami, the appearance of his dead wife to warn him about the young woman, Asami’s murder of her stepfather, which Aoyama could not have known about—unspool, as if Aoyama’s and Asami’s perspectives mingle in Aoyama’s feverish mind.
Aoyama awakes to the notorious torture scene. Asami, having paralyzed her erstwhile lover, inflicts excruciating pain with carefully positioned acupuncture needles, then moves on to mutilation. Eihi Shiina plays the scene brilliantly. Gone is the shy reserve and subservience of the Asami Aoyama fell in love with, replaced with the forced sweetness of a waitress or salesperson, with a demonic edge. “Deeper, deeper”, Asami chirps, as she inserts yet another needle. “Right foot, please”, she says, like a crazed shoe clerk, as she attends to that part of Aoyama’s body.
Is Asami’s revenge a dream? Is she a ghost or a living woman? Which scenes really happened: the perfect dates between Aoyama and Asami, the childhood abuse of Asami, both, neither? Finally it doesn’t matter. Docile dream girl and avenging ghost alike seem the product of sexist, male-dominated Japanese culture as Miike renders it. Each is as far from the reality of real women as the other. One plays as fantasy, the other as nightmare, with the suggestion that the man who conjures the fantasy has to suffer from the nightmare, too. Despite our sympathy for Aoyama, Audition succeeds in making us feel for both versions of Asami, and also consider that maybe Aoyama deserves his fate.
Ten years after its release, when a flowering of American horror films such as the Saw franchise have pushed the boundaries of acceptable screen violence and drawn the charge that their scenes of torture and gore are gratuitous, Audition stands as an example that violence can work in the service of serious themes, and push audiences to reach revelations not possible with less graphic representation. Michael Curtis Nelson
Boys Don’t Cry
Chloe Sevigny, Hilary Swank, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton
Boys Don’t Cry is set in Falls City, Nebraska, an environment in which gender roles are traditionally and rigidly defined. The men in the film, like John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), drink, fight and “bumper ski” with their pick up trucks, while women like Lana (Chloe Sevigny) sing karaoke, daydream at their jobs at the spinach packing factory and acquiesce to the desires and tempers of the men around them. The men and women of Falls City spend a lot of time together, but they don’t seem to like or understand each other very much.
In this polarized setting Brandon Teena’s (Hilary Sawnk) gender confusion is particularly dangerous. This danger is established early in the film when Brandon is forced to flee his hometown of Lincoln after his secret is discovered. As Brandon hops into his car his cousin, Lonny (Matt McGrath), shouts a warning: “They hang faggots in Falls City, too!” We watch events unfold with the knowledge that “they” do far worse things to “faggots” in Falls City. Indeed, most contemporary viewers would have been familiar with the true story of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena, a young woman who successfully passed as a man until he was beaten to death in 1993 by his former friends.
What is most striking about this movie is not its tragedy—which is so abundant and overwhelming at times as to be unbearable—but rather its scattered moments of joy. Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance elevates the character of Brandon Teena to something more than just a martyr or victim. In addition to capturing the mannerisms of a woman who is learning how to act like a man—how to hold a cigarette or throw a punch—Swank also portrays the almost childlike giddiness Brandon exudes every time he successfully navigates the world as a man.
For instance, early in the film, Brandon finds himself embroiled in a bar fight with a man much larger than himself. John lends Brandon hand both because Brandon cannot handle the large opponent on his own and because John is always ready for an opportunity to perform his masculinity. Later, as the new friends catch their breath in an alley, John grabs Brandon’s face and examines it, telling him “Yup, you’re gonna have a shiner in the morning.” A slow smile spreads over Brandon’s face as he turns to examine his reflection in a window “I am?” he asks. “Oh shit!” This black eye is an achievement for Brandon, a hard won prize of his new masculinity.
As the film moves inextricably towards its conclusion, we get the sense that Brandon’s final undoing comes not so much from the physical violence enacted on his body, but rather by the unmasking of his carefully cultivated gender identity. First he is stripped down to his underwear in front of Lana and later he is beaten and raped. If Brandon will not acknowledge his biological sex, then John and Tom will force his sex upon him. These violations culminate in a heartbreaking scene in the Falls City police station where a battered Brandon is interrogated by an all male police force. The police ask him questions like “When he poked ya, where’d he try to pop it in first?” We see Brandon’s puffy face in a close up, his swollen lips barely able to form the words “My vagina.”
Director Kimberly Pierce manages to make Boys Don’t Cry about so many things—how ignorance and boredom breeds contempt and violence, how socially proscribed gender roles limit desire and happiness, how men and women remain a mystery to one another. But the film’s sporadic moments of happiness—when Brandon is first called “Sir” or when he and Lana tenderly make love after his rape—are a reminder of how difficult it can be to find joy in life. Ten after the release of this film, in the wake of Proposition 8, we still, very clearly, are in need of this reminder. Amanda Ann Klein