In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
Blu-ray REVIEW – AUDITION *****
Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Ryo Ishibashi, Eiki Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Renji Ishibashi, Jun Kunimara. Japan 1999 115 mins Certificate: 18
Out Now on Arrow Video Blu-Ray / DVD Dual Format edition
In addition to being the crossover movie that brought tirelessly prolific filmmaker Takashi Miike to international attention, AUDITION was also a crucial picture in the rise of Japanese horror cinema’s popularity in the UK. Released a year after the breakthrough supernatural chiller RINGU and afforded a theatrical release (Miike’s first in this country) by the same distributor, Metro Tartan, AUDITION became a benchmark for ballsy, fearless horror at a time when the American horror market was recovering from a kind of post-modern castration.
Ironically, at heart, the movie is a relative of all those comparatively mild early 90’s Hollywood domestic slasher films in which attractive, middle-class folk get mixed up with the wrong lover / babysitter / flatmate and find their lives threatened and homes invaded by their unbalanced new stalker. In the case of AUDITION, Miike employs the basic theme (cautionary tale of a lonely Japanese man who successfully woos a much younger girl via morally dubious means and pays the price) to tell a sad and sombre tale rather than a conventional crowd-pleasing popcorn movie. The tale also unforgettably pays off with the kind of gruelling physical violence the likes of UNLAWFUL ENTRY and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE would not dare to depict, even if allowed by the constraints of the American ratings board.
Miike’s versatility has long been underrated by commentators who have him simply pegged as an envelope-pushing shock merchant. AUDITION is as potent a display of his genre-transcending talents as one could imagine. Despite the extreme torture everyone recalls, the movie is more discreet (even in its talking-point final act) than you may remember, and it is far from being a vehicle upon which to hang rabble-rousing gory money shots. Following so soon after RINGU, it’s another, albeit very different, masterclass in slow-burn, escalating dread, with Miike controlling many shifts in tone from melancholia through to light comedy and gentle romance. First viewings of AUDITION tend to shatter your mind space so that you don’t necessarily register the contrast between the static camera, long takes and muted visual style of the first hour with the hallucinatory primary colour palette and surrealistic bent of the latter stages.
There are only oblique hints of the horrors to come in the film’s early-going. It opens as a poignant tale of loss and grief. Middle-aged father Ryo Ishibashi has to come to terms with the premature death of his wife from an unnamed illness and bring up his young son alone. Seven years after the tragedy, he remains a lonely widower, and is prompted by his now-teenage boy to do something about it, while also being unsubtly reminded of how old he looks. There’s a rare warmth and intimacy in the film’s father-son scenes that again contradicts Miike’s reputation as a controversy-courting cinematic bad boy.
Ishibashi’s close friend, a movie producer, comes up with an ethically questionable though well intentioned idea of how Ishibashi can meet the intelligent, professional woman he seeks : together, they will hold a series of “auditions” for eligible ladies, drawing them in via the faux promise of making them “tomorrow’s heroine” on the silver screen. Perturbed by the dishonesty involved, he goes along with it, and after many unremarkable auditions, is drawn to the timid, soft-spoken 24 year old Eiki Shiina who, having been forced to quit her beloved ballet dancing, now yearns to be an actress. Ishibashi falls in love with this fragile beauty despite his friend’s vague suggestions that something isn’t right with her (“She makes me nervous” / “Something’s wrong with her”).
Miike finds humour in Ishibashi’s search for the perfect female companion, notably via the audition montage which, in addition to lightly satirising Japanese male attitudes toward women, also echoes similar montages of failed “applicants” in the earlier American / British flatmate-from-Hell thrillers SINGLE WHITE FEMALE and SHALLOW GRAVE. Together, the perfectly pitched, child-like Shiina and charismatic Ishibashi find an unforced tenderness in their early date scenes that reflects how the movie could well have succeeded taking a different genre path. An increasingly suffocating sense of unease, however, sets in, and it’s superbly commanded by Miike as disquieting truths become apparent. Shiina’s former boss has been missing for a year. There are gossipy whispers about the dismemberment of a woman involved with the missing guy. Shiina’s performance subtly suggests mental instability beyond mere insecurity as she veers from unhealthy neediness (“Please love me…Only me”) to outright misanthropy (“Living is just another way of reaching death”). And, in perhaps the most quietly disturbing scenes of late-90’s horror, Miike employs sporadic cutaways to Shiina in her apartment, slumped over and motionless while in the background a huge burlap sack clearly contains someone or something that appears to still be alive.
The infamous final act, of course, abandons the hitherto straight-forward linear narrative as it fractures time and space, blurring possible drug-addled hallucinations with bonafide flashbacks and dream sequences. There are still echoes of that earlier strain of far simpler Hollywood thrillers (Shiina invades our hero’s home space and her first act is to kill his pet dog) but the torment he suffers is uniquely cruel : drugged so that his body is paralysed but his nerves still very much “awake”, he is subjected to the kind of torture that, in the context of the horror genre in the 1990’s, was uncomfortably beyond our expectations. In the wake of all too real atrocities around the world invading our over-saturated 21st century media culture, graphic torture and protracted scenes of physical suffering would, of course, become a key component both in (SAW, HOSTEL,I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE) and out (TAKEN, 24) of the horror genre in the U.S.
Although far more sensationalistic and extravagant modes of torture have dominated our screens since 1999, AUDITION’s power as it lurches into fragmented, David Lynch-inspired territory, remains undiminished. An outstanding, disorientating montage brings distressing images of child abuse that would still be too much for mainstream Hollywood horror. We learn the hard way of the evolution of Shiina into an authentically complex self-styled avenger driven to believe in universal cruelty and the mantra “Words create lies. Pain can be trusted.” This sequence also yields one reveal (the tongueless, mutilated guy supping Shiina’s vomit from a dog bowl) that’s both as startling as the keynote RINGU revelation of Sadako and perhaps one of cinema history’s most upsetting single sequences.
Shiina’s multi-layered performance, trilling “deeper…deeper” during the film’s most hard-to-watch moments, is at the centre of a film that refuses to give its audience a comfortable ride (even largely sacrificing a conventional score) even though its narrative could easily have made for a straight-forward, more obviously gratifying stalker-thriller or rape-revenge exploiter. The true nature of what we have witnessed remains deliciously ambiguous seventeen years later. And much of it is deceptive. Even in the relatively light-hearted early scenes, you can find the melancholic sense of despair and hopelessness that comes to haunt the entire film. Ishibashi’s producer-pal, the orchestrator of the “audition” that starts it all, observes footage of a concert that not only reveals how hopelessly out of touch they both are (he refers to it as being “like a cult ceremony”) but also, in its most simplified form, the film’s overriding theme. Sadly, and fleetingly, he laments “The whole of Japan is lonely….”
The new 2k remastering of AUDITION highlights the distinct visual contrast between the film’s earthier first hour and its fragmented, ambiguous denouement. The disc carries over key interviews (and one commentary) from earlier DVD releases while adding engaging new additions. Tony Rayns informatively reflects on Miike’s early career of turning out (routinely) half a dozen films a year and gradually rising to prominence on the international festival circuit. He highlights the parallels between the film – and its original source novel – to Stephen King’s “Misery” (including foot amputation) while noting the film’s evocation of paranoid male fantasies of women. He also relates it to other Miike films that refuse to resolve themselves for the comfort of the audience and considers opposing arguments about the film’s purported misogynistic or pro-feminist undertones. A new interview with Miike reveals a charming, low key gent with an easy smile and a need to quietly assert that the violent / horrific films he is renowned for represent a small part of his filmography – albeit the part that sells very well internationally. He expresses surprise that AUDITION did so well overseas, as he considers it to be very specific about Japanese life, and he also discusses the expectation for more movies like AUDITION following its breakout success – and his inability generally to do anything than his own thing.